Elliott Erwitt and photography: waiting for things to happen
The best way to describe photographer Elliott Erwitt is “lightness”. Not “levity”, which would indicate a careless and superficial vision, but “lightness” refers to a delicate touch, not intrusive. His work is meticulous while at the same time reflecting a sort of weightlessness: gone are conceptual affectation and statements of meaning. Things are as they are, and it has never been so enticing to go back and look at them in this light.
One of Erwitt’s favorite subjects is dogs. If you ask him why, he answers that he likes them, “and they don’t ask for reprints of the photos”. In addition to being the subjects in many of his photos, dogs impose the height of the camera’s viewpoint: if the subject is a Chihuahua, you see nothing of the owner besides his feet. For dogs that like to jump, the camera is raised a bit higher, but the master’s face is still not revealed.
Sometimes Erwitt helped them along: “To make the dog jump, I started barking!” Other times the only solution was to arm himself with patience. “This is photography: waiting for things to happen”.
This philosophy has produced some incredible shots, such as the photo that shows a seagull sitting on a lamppost, watching an airplane fly overhead.
Photos taken in museums, collected in the book Museum Watching, include some that seem to be casual, but in reality, were taken only after long periods of waiting. Such is the case for the photo taken in the Prado, in which a large group of men are observing The Nude Maja, while the sole woman in the gallery stands alone, looking at The Clothed Maja. Erwitt noted, “To get that specific moment, I had to wait all day!”
Museums are an important source of inspiration for the photographer, who states that he truly enjoys watching people that are observing a work of art. After museums, hotel rooms are one of the most frequent settings for Erwitt’s photos. In fact, during a certain period, he decided to immortalize each of the rooms he had slept in, as a sort of travel journal.
As always, these are not conceptual photos, taken with the assumption of telling a story or revealing a meaning: “First you take the shot based on instinct, then you develop the meaning.”
Hence, not even the photographs taken at the entrance to Auschwitz, are laden with a particular meaning when seen through Erwitt’s lens. “It is merely an historical record of an evil place. We should visit not only those places in which beautiful things have happened, but also those where ugly things have occurred.”
Certainly, one of the beautiful places includes the set of The Misfits, a film by John Huston, where Erwitt captured the entire cast of the film in an unforgettable photograph, “It was the last film for many of them”, notes the photographer, underlining that exceptional moment.
Erwitt also created some more natural and intimate photos of Marilyn Monroe, such as the one in which she is holding a book, her gaze is turned toward the camera, her hand resting against her face.
Another famous photo, of a completely different nature, shows Nixon pointing his finger at Khrushchev. Nixon made use of the photo for his campaigning.
Children are another recurring subject in Erwitt’s works. “They are always exciting,” he explains.
Two shots in particular demonstrate his observation. The first shows a child pointing a gun at his temple, with a wide smile that lights up his face. This is one of Erwitt’s most memorable photos, because it can be interpreted in many different ways: is it funny, tragic or crazy? The observer is left to decide.
The other photo shows some poor children in Venice during the post-war period. The photo recreates perfectly the mood of that time. Erwitt says that he was particularly inspired by Italian neo-realism films, and that the post-World War II era was an interesting time for his work, because it was so emotionally charged.
If you ask Elliott Erwitt his secret for taking such amazing photographs, he will say that the only way is to take pictures. Take pictures all the time, until you reach perfection. You must have patience, determination and cultivate your ability to observe.
All qualities that he himself, no doubt, has in abundance.
A selection of Elliott Erwitt’s photos are on display in Turin, at Palazzo Madama through 1 September 2013.
Tuesday through Saturday: 10:00am to 6:00pm, entry permitted until 5:00pm
Sunday: 10:00am to 7:00pm, entry permitted until 6:00pm.
Closed on Mondays
€8, discounted tickets for €5, audio guide included
The header photo is shown only for documentary purposes.