The Life and Legacy of Elliott Erwitt: A Street Photographer’s Journey Through History and Humor

2023-11-30 22:50:14

In 70 years of career, this “street photographer”, as gifted as Cartier-Bresson in capturing the “definitive moment” and as Robert Capa for his sense of history, has immortalized politicians, film stars, couples, children and hundreds of dogs whom he photographed as “people with more hair”. “Some people think my photos are sad, others think they are quite funny. But in the end, sad and funny, aren’t they the same thing?” he said without ever taking himself seriously.

The golden age of magazines

Born on July 26 in Paris in 1928 to Russian parents, Elliott Erwitt grew up in Milan before emigrating to the United States in 1939 with his family. After ten years in New York, he moved to Los Angeles, took up photography easily – “you can make images without effort and without training” – and soon worked as a printer in a laboratory specializing in celebrity portraits.

Conscripted into the Army in 1951 as a photographer’s assistant, he continued to work for several titles while stationed in New Jersey, Germany and France. Before starting his service, he met in New York the photographers Edward Steichen (then head of the photographic department of the Museum of Modern Art in New York MoMA), Roy Stryker and Robert Capa who became his mentors. On his return in 1953, the latter sponsored him to enter the temple of photojournalism, the Magnum agency.

“Very lucky”, he traveled around the world several times but chose not to immortalize the dramas of history. It was then the golden age of magazines: it contributed to Collier’s, Look, LIFE, Holliday. He sketches a surly Nixon pointing an angry finger at Khrushchev, Jackie Kennedy under her veil at her husband’s funeral, a tender aside between his wife and their infant daughter or even an old Russian in curlers. With “California kiss” – two lovers kissing in the rearview mirror of a car parked along the Pacific – he sums up in a cliché the promises of bliss on the American west coast.

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A career in video

In the 1970s, he contracted the video bug and began filming documentaries on Japan, country music and stained glass, then comedic and satirical television programs for the American channel HBO. He claimed that his real job was (in color) and photography, his “hobby” (he never deviated from black and white).

His playfulness led him to invent an alter ego, André S. Solidor, who allowed him to express all his exuberances as a contemporary photographer. Married four times, father of six children and owner of eight dogs, he admitted to having worked until the end, out of financial necessity. At the age of 90, he published a book on Scotland in 2018.

Any advice for beginners? “With celebrities you can’t screw up. Even with the worst photo in the world. Only take photos of celebrities. They don’t have to be good. Well centered, with enough margin to be able to cut it.


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