The Art of Observation: Elliott Erwitt
“To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place…. I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.” – Elliott Erwitt
I read a great blog post by photographer John Loengard recently where he wrote, “It’s not important if photographs are good, what is important is that they are interesting.” I love that. Having an interesting photograph means that people will look at it and wonder and come back to it again and again. I think many of us are striving for “good” photographs, whatever that means, but perhaps if we change our goal to capturing something interesting, we may find that our images garner a lot more attention. Elliott Erwitt is a photographer that shows what interesting means. When you see a photograph from Erwitt, it might make you think, make you laugh, make you sad, but you will always experience some sort of emotion and you want to come back and take another look.
Elliott Erwitt was born in Paris in 1928 to Russian parents. He spent his childhood in Milan, but he and his family had to flee from there to the US to escape Mussolini. His parents divorced soon after this move and even though his father got custody, he left town in order to avoid alimony payments. Erwitt was on his own at 15. In 1944, he found a job processing prints in a Hollywood darkroom and started shooting images himself.
After spending all of 1949 traveling throughout France and Italy he returned to the states, to New York, to become a professional photographer. He was soon drafted into the army, but continued to shoot while stationed in Germany and France. When he returned in 1953 he had the good fortune of meeting Robert Capa, Edward Steichen, and Roy Stryker who saw his talent and quickly invited him to join Magnum Photos (Magnum is a photography cooperative that was formed in 1947 in order to give its members the opportunity to pick and choose the stories they wanted to focus on and not just sell photographs to a single magazine. Potential members are required to submit portfolios for an exhaustive approval process). Erwitt soon became a well sought after advertising and magazine photographer, shooting for publications like Collier’s, Look, Life, and Holiday. He also started making a name for himself in the commercial world shooting for clients like Air France, KLM, and Chase Manhattan Bank. While continuing his work as a photographer , Erwitt began making films in 1970.
He attributes most of his success to being in the right place at the right time. One of his more well-known photos is one of Richard Nixon arguing with Nikita Khrushchev. He was sent to photograph an industrial fair in Moscow for Westinghouse Refrigerators in 1959. By coincidence he arrived on the same day that then vice-president Richard Nixon was due to appear with Communist party chairman, Khrushchev. In front of a model kitchen, which had been assembled by Macy’s department store, Khrushchev launched into the infamous “kitchen debate” with Nixon. “It was ridiculous,” Erwitt recalls. “Nixon was saying, ‘We’re richer than you are’, and Khrushchev would say, ‘We are catching up and we will surpass you.’ That was the level of the debate. At one point Nixon was getting so irritating I thought I heard Khrushchev say in Russian ‘Go f*ck my grandmother’.” Erwitt took the photo of Nixon belligerently prodding Khrushchev in the lapel, which later was used on posters during Nixon’s presidential bid.
The photo above, “Segregated Water Fountains”, taken in 1950, was never meant to be a symbol of the Civil Rights era. Erwitt just happened to be there and liked the juxtaposition of the elements. The result, however, has been used ever since, at first as a spur to change and then later as a reminder of the bigotry of the past. Erwitt says, “These are just things you see. You don’t have to look for anything. It s all there.”
Erwitt has a lot of patience. He sees the potential for something and he’ll sit and wait for it to happen. He’ll rarely direct a photograph, although he has been known to occasionally bark at dogs or blow a bike horn to get the attention of a passerby. His technique is simple – he says “you just put film in the camera and read the instructions on the box”. Although Elliott Erwitt is well known for capturing serious editorial photographs, much of the time when you look at his photographs you can’t help but smile. A lot of his personal work is almost comical and you wonder if they are staged or Photoshopped. They aren’t. He is simply a master at capturing perfect moments.
Elliott Erwitt has served as president of Magnum Photos three separate times, has published nearly twenty books, and has won numerous awards, yet he remains humble and talks of photography as if it is his hobby. “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.” Photography is something he does simply for the joy of it, and isn’t that what photography should be about?