Elliott Erwitt 1928 - 2023
The legendary Magnum photographer has died in New York, aged 95
Elliott Erwitt's feel for the absurd is just one of the many unique qualities that characterised the photographer's incredibly successful 70-year career.
His unique perspective when looking at the world led him to produce a vast body of work, capturing moments that would pass most by, or scenarios that might fleetingly spark a smile before promptly disappearing from our minds. He said that his approach always followed the philosophy of "shoot first ask questions later."
His photographs covered everyday scenes, people, places, the rich and famous and dogs. Lots and lots of dogs. His best known photos include a heated exchange between Nikita Khrushchev and Richard Nixon in Moscow in 1959 and backstage shots of actresses Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly and Marlene Dietrich. His 1963 photograph of Jackie Kennedy at JFK's funeral is perhaps his most powerful image, capturing in the stricken contours of the first lady's veiled face, a profound grief felt by an entire nation.
Jackie Kennedy, Virginia, 1963 - from the Elliott Erwitt book Snaps - © Elliott Erwitt / Magnum Photos
Erwitt also received many cinematic assignments, and also befriended like-minded souls, including the New York playwright Arthur Miller, whom he shot in 1954. That year Erwitt also photographed Miller’s future wife Marilyn Monroe on the set of The Seven Year Itch, also in NYC.
Both Miller and Monroe were subjects Erwitt would return to over the years. His 1956 photograph of Marilyn was taken the year the couple married, and catches the star, again in New York, during one of her happier moments.
Marilyn Monroe, New York, 1956 - from the Elliott Erwitt book Snaps - © Elliott Erwitt / Magnum Photos
Despite popular myth, Elliott Erwitt was not a native New Yorker. The Big Apple was actually the fourth major city the photographer had called home. He was born in Paris, and raised in Milan, before his parents relocated to Los Angeles.
He spent his teens in Hollywood, working first in a commercial dark room then switching to photography, and only ended up in New York City in the late 1940s, working at first as a janitor, while taking lessons at the New School for Social Research.
Yet, it was in New York that Erwitt’s career truly took off. He met Edward Steichen - another European transplant, and the director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art – and Robert Capa, the co-founder of Magnum Photos. Capa encouraged Erwitt to apply to Magnum, and, upon acceptance, Erwitt began to shoot both news and commercial imagery.
His photograph of the so-called Kitchen Debate, taken during an argument between Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and Vice President Richard Nixon in Moscow in the summer of 1959, was among the more famous news images in the photographer’s portfolio.
However, Erwitt was perhaps at his best when shooting New York, the city he learned to call home (though the signed prints that form part of our Collector’s Editions series captured a more leisurely metropolis than many New Yorkers may recognise today).
Fifth Avenue, New York - Limited editon print accompanying the Elliott Erwitt book Snaps - © Elliott Erwitt / Magnum Photos
His picture of Fifth Avenue may express some of the speed and purposefulness of the 1940s automobile; but the car in the foreground is a DeSoto Sky-View, a purpose-built taxi, with a special rooftop, plexiglass panel, enabling passengers to admire the Manhattan skyline as they glide by.
Similarly, his shot of Tony’s restaurant at 83 Worth Street in Tribeca, taken in 1969, shows how this family joint slotted into the bottom of one of the neighbourhood’s loft buildings, meekly - more mouse hole than lunch spot.
New York, 1969 - Limited edition print accompanying the Elliott Erwitt book Snaps - © Elliott Erwitt / Magnum Photos
Tony’s has long closed, and you’re unlikely to see a Sky-View outside of a 1940s period drama. But while Erwitt, who lived and worked in New York until his death, would capture the city’s ever-changing scenes, he would also often return to the country of his birth, both as a US Army photographer’s assistant and later, as a professional photographer in his own right.
The image below, of a man and his son on a bike in Provence, south-eastern France, was taken in 1955, shortly after his discharge from the Army, when Erwitt was shooting editorial images for such magazines as Look, LIFE and Holiday.
Provence, 1955 - Limited edition print accompanying the Elliott Erwitt book Snaps - © Elliott Erwitt / Magnum Photos
It proved so to be so apt an expression of easy-going joie de vivre, that the French Tourist Board used the image to advertise the country’s appeal. Years later, the Dutch beer company Heineken amped up the image's humour, in a parody that, while undoubtedly jolly, lacked the subtle shaping of Erwitt's original image.
“Photography is an art of observation," Erwitt said. "It's about finding something interesting in an ordinary place. It's about reacting to what you see, hopefully without preconception. You can find pictures anywhere. It's simply a matter of noticing things and organizing them. You just have to care about what's around you and have a concern with humanity and the human comedy." The art world has lost one of its true legends. RIP Elliott.