What are the attributes of a great photograph? There is no single answer to this question, a subjective one most of the time, but one thing is certain: behind every great photograph there is always a great story waiting to be told.
For Elliott Erwitt, one of the world’s most famous master photographers, the story in question is a curious and fascinating one – the irony and complexity of the ‘human comedy’.
Born in Paris in 1929, Erwitt spent his childhood in Italy and the United States. His lifelong passion for photography arose while he was working as a dark room clerk in Hollywood, and he developed it by studying photography at the Los Angeles City College and then cinema at New York’s New School for Social Research.
He served in the US Army during World War II as a military photographer, and afterwards journeyed in Germany and France for work. But it was after returning to New York that he met Edward Steichen, Robert Capa and Roy Stryker, all of whom helped to change the course of his career.
His work was soon acknowledged for what it was, and in 1953 he joined the prestigious Magnum Photos agency, becoming its president a few years later.
Thereafter he carried out many commissions for the agency, in the fields of current affairs as well as advertising campaigns for well-known companies – but he never forgot to take his Leica M3 with him. And that is what he used to produce some of the most famous black and white images in the history of photography.
With an eye to the dividing-line between photoreporter and artist, Erwitt has distinguished himself by displaying stark social differences and their inherent paradoxes, and the absurdity of everyday life. All with a deep sense of irony.
Dogs are an important subject for Erwitt owing to their ability to put the human comedy into perspective: he believes that their irreverent and unconcerned behaviour contrasts with that of their owners, at times both pompous and starchy.
Some of his examples of ‘pure’ photojournalism will be regarded in the future as historically significant, such as the photo of Jacqueline Kennedy at her husband’s funeral, or that of Nixon poking his finger in Khrushchev’s chest, subsequently regarded as a symbol of the Cold War.
Although he is now approaching his ninetieth birthday, Elliott Erwitt is still active as a photographer. And his inimitable sense of humour is as strong as ever.
The pictures appearing in the photo gallery were provided by the author himself. Elliott Erwitt is represented by the Sudest57 studio.
New York, February 16 2018