Elliott Erwitt: the intelligent humor of the mundane

Defining Elliot Erwitt based on a category of photographic subjects would be absolutely impossible: in his work, his great sensitivity and his jocular curiosity, led him to cover a broad spectrum of subjects, emotions and impressions.
Elliot Erwitt | Image source: Wikipedia

Defining Elliot Erwitt based on a category of photographic subjects would be absolutely impossible: in his work, his great sensitivity and his jocular curiosity, led him to cover a broad spectrum of subjects, emotions and impressions. A portraitist who creates life from the inert; just looking at his photographs is enough to realize the humorous power he has over the mundane. Having daily life as the main stage, he has composed images that attract the viewer’s eye anxiously. 

Born as Elio Romano Erwitt on July 26, 1928, in Paris, France, from a family of Jewish origin. He spent his childhood in Milan. His family moved back to Paris in 1938 and emigrated to New York the following year, to escape fascism and racial persecution, a consequence of World War II. This painful incipit will be one of his greatest fortunes, as well as the beginning of his great career as a photographer.

Elliot Erwitt | Image source: Wikipedia

In 1941 he moved to Los Angeles. His interest in photography began when he was a teenager while living in Hollywood; it was then that he acquired his first camera, at age 14, discovering his passion for the art of photography.He studied first at Los Angeles City College between 1942 and 1944, a prestigious artistic academy, and then at the New School for Social Research in New York in 1948, where he devoted himself to cinema, another great passion that he cultivated over time.

He began working in a commercial darkroom in 1944 while attending College. In 1948 he met Roy Stryker, photographer and founder of the FSA’s documentary photography movement. After spending 1949 traveling in France and Italy, Erwitt returned to New York and began working as a professional photographer.Immediately after World War II, in 1951, he served in the US military as a military photographer in France and in Germany, witnessing military operations in the twilight of the conflict.

“Nothing happens when you sit at home. I always make it a point to carry a camera with me at all times…I just shoot at what interests me at that moment.”

The successive period went by working as a freelancer on commission or under the wing of large magazines such as Collier’s, Look, Life and Holiday. It was not long before the celebrity of his work led him to the famous Magnum Agency of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa, who invited him to join the agency in 1953.

Immersed in the eccentric and renowned Magnum Agency, Erwitt finally had the possibility of collaborating in one of the greatest forges of ideas and masterpieces in the world of photography. It was during this period, in the 50’s, that he took some of the most important photos of his career, which contributed the most to building his celebrity in the world.

In the melting pot of political intrigues that the Cold War meant, he managed, many times, to capture the most intense and symbolic moments of that period. For example, “The kitchen debate”, was taken during the US cultural and educational exchange exhibit in Moscow in 1959. 

“Balance of light is the problem, not the amount. Balance between shadows and highlights determines where the emphasis goes in the picture…make sure the major light in a picture falls at right angles to the camera.”

As Erwitt himself relates, he was there just to photograph refrigerators in a factory, and he ended up immortalizing the then presidential candidate Richard Nixon while pointing his finger on the chest of the communist party secretary Nikita Khrushchev, while they where apparently having a heated debate.That picture, seen by millions of people around the world, caused a frenzy. It altered opinions as much as it had emboldened and outraged the citizens.

In October of 1957, he photographed Moscow’s Parade in Red Square for the 40th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. His photos of the parade became famous as, for the first time, the dreaded Russian armaments were shown to the eyes of the world. Elliott immediately ran to the shelter and revealed the photos. It was a world first.

“Good photography is not about Zone Printing or any other Ansel Adams nonsense. It’s just about seeing. You either see or you don’t see. The rest is academic. Photography is simply a function of noticing things. Nothing more.”

During his brief work as an official photographer of the White House, he attended funerals for the tragic murder of President J.F. Kennedy.  After leaving his job as a White House photographer, Erwitt had already acquired the fame necessary to be able to devote himself almost entirely to his career. While he continued his work as a photographer, he began making films in 1970. His documentaries include “Beauty knows no pain” (1971) and “Red, white and bluegrass” (1973), among many others. In total, he has produced seventeen comedy specials.

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