Think of Elliott Erwitt, and an iconographic image that comes to mind is his photograph of an anxious, sweatered Chihuahua dwarfed by the boots of its owner and the colossal front feet and legs of a Great Dane. With an observant and eclectic eye and an unexpected point of view, this 83-year-old veteran photojournalist has often explored life at its most humorous, leading critics to label him as photography’s greatest comic. But one has only to turn to another famous image to see a completely different side of Erwitt. At her husband’s funeral, Jacqueline Kennedy clutches the flag that draped his coffin to her chest. Despite the black veil behind which she retreated to preserve a fragment of privacy, Erwitt collides head on with a woman lost in grief and confusion; the intimacy of the pain he captures pierces the viewer to the core.
Seeing what few others see, and distilling it with the precision of a painter, is the essence of Erwitt’s work. “To me, photography is the art of observation,” says Erwitt. “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.”
Erwitt was honored as the Lifetime Achievement recipient at the 2011 International Center of Photography’s Infinity Awards. Elliott Erwitt: Personal Best — more than 100 works on view at the ICP from May-August 2011 — focused on his favorite images, a selection of documentary films produced over the past 60 years and some previously unseen and unpublished early prints. The latter included many originally passed over by him for other photographs, revealing an eye shaped by a checkered and peripatetic life.
Elio Romano Erwitz was born in Paris to Russian Jewish émigrés in 1928. His parents separated when he was four, and his father left for Africa before eventually moving to Los Angeles. Erwitt immigrated to New York from Mussolini’s Italy with his mother in 1939 as war broke out. He then joined his father in Los Angeles — his mother followed, but lived apart from them.
Erwitt attended Hollywood High School and worked in a commercial darkroom processing signed photographs of movie stars. to preserve a fragment of privacy, Erwitt collides head on with a woman lost in grief and confusion; the intimacy of the pain he captures pierces the viewer to the core. Seeing what few others see, and distilling it with the precision of a painter, is the essence of Erwitt’s work. “To me, photography is the art of observation,” He studied photography at Los Angeles City College (1942-1944) and filmmaking at the New School for Social Research in New York (1949-1950), an experience that he now counts as of little use. “There’s not a lot to teach in photography,” says Erwitt. “If you read the instructions on the box, you’re pretty much set.”
His next move was joining the U.S. Army Signal Corps, where he worked as a photographer’s assistant while stationed in Germany and France. After his military service, Erwitt returned to New York, portfolio in hand. He was intent on meeting his photography icons, and he made the rounds that all young, striving photographers did in that period. He worked under Roy Stryker, former head of the photo department at the Farm Security Administration; his first real job was shooting a Standard Oil Company refinery in New Jersey. It was in New York that he also met Edward Steichen and Robert Capa, who became key influences in his life.
More of this article can be read in the Fall 2011 issue.