Elliott Erwitt: An Unerring Eye For The Moment

Sheridan Sansegundo | July 17, 1997

First, Elliott Erwitt's photographs, full of wit and the irony of life, make you smile. Then they hit you with their underlying poignancy. And then - particularly because the shots seem so straightforward and casual - they provoke a slew of questions:

How did he see that? How was he always there at the right time? Are the rest of us sleepwalking through life, never noticing what is right under our noses?

Although Mr. Erwitt would never say it himself, the answers to those questions define his unerring visual sense and also explain what makes a good photographer a great one. Instead, he claims that his shyness, which he was able to conceal behind the protective camouflage of a camera, has helped him, together with endless curiosity and a sharp eye for human comedy.

Ideas, he says, have little to do with photography - it's the moment, an instant when it all comes together.

You Never Know

"But you never know what you're going to get until you see the contacts. What you see happening in front of you and what you get in the photograph can be completely different," said Mr. Erwitt.

"There are times when you think you've done terribly well," he said, but the finished photo disappoints. And there are other occasions when a photograph of nothing much turns out be just the one - the great shot. Mr. Erwitt made some of his best prints, he said, from photographs taken 20 years ago, when, looking back over the contact sheets, he suddenly discovered something new.

"It must have been there all the time," he said, "but I couldn't see it then." Since the photos obviously didn't change in the intervening years, the two decades must have brought a change in his way of looking.

World Traveler

The photographer is apparently at home anyplace in the world. Some of his better-known pictures are of an outdoor confessional in Poland, a boys' street band in Mexico, strippers in Las Vegas, little old ladies in St. Tropez, a wedding in Siberia, nudists in England, tourists in Italy, and dogs just about everywhere.

"Travel is good in that it gets you out of a rut," he said. "You get into the middle of situations, or on the surface of them, anyway, which is useful for photography - where things are what they seem, though not necessarily what they are."

"But," he added, "I'm getting a little tired of constantly traveling." In the last three months, Mr. Erwitt, who speaks four languages, has been around the world twice and to Europe three times.

Hollywood High

If he has adapted to almost continuous travel in a way most people couldn't, it's because he has had a lifetime of practice. He was born Elio Romano Ervitz in Paris, the child of Russian emigres who fled the Revolution. He spent his first 10 years in Italy, but politics, this time Fascism, again uprooted the family and in 1938 his father carried him off to Los Angeles.

He went to Hollywood High School, where his first camera was an antique glass-plate, and Los Angeles City College, where he bought a Rolleiflex and got a job in a darkroom printing movie stars' photographs.

But he couldn't wait to get out of Southern California. His father was by then living in New Orleans, and young Elliott had been pretty much supporting himself from the age of 15, so in the mid-'40s he took off for New York City.

"It wasn't the Big Apple then, but it was the only place to be."

Capa And Steichen

Mr. Erwitt found a job working with Roy Stryker and the Farm Security Administration on a photographic project about the rebuilding of Pittsburgh. He met Edward Steichen, who arranged his first commercial job, and Robert Capa, who had started a little agency, which he called Magnum.

Mr. Capa asked Mr. Erwitt to join. But it was 1951, the time of the Korean War, and Mr. Erwitt was called up. Extensive testing indicated he should become an antiaircraft gunner, but he was made a darkroom assistant with a Signal Corps photo company instead, and assigned to Europe rather than Korea.

"I've always been lucky," said Mr. Erwitt. "The Army was my first steady job. I liked it."

His first professional recognition came while he was still in service. A photo of his called "Bed and Boredom," of a private lying on his bunk, won a $1,500 Life magazine contest. Mr. Erwitt bought a little car with the money and named it "Thank you, Henry," for Henry Luce, Life's publisher.

He had been in touch with Capa while he was in Paris, and "20 minutes after leaving the Army, I signed up with Magnum." He has freelanced with the agency ever since.

Mr. Erwitt enjoys his commercial work - big advertising jobs, usually with British or Japanese advertising agencies. "They pay well and I generally get the good ones to do with people, travel, and actuality. I get hired for believable pictures - even if they're set up, they're still believable."

Then there are the photographs he has taken while on journalistic assignments - Marilyn Monroe on location, Jackie Kennedy at her husband's funeral, or the particularly famous one of Nixon jabbing Khrushchev in the chest.

An Accomplice

Mr. Erwitt invariably has an exhibit in one city or another. His latest is a show of 101 large-scale prints in Verona, Italy, in an ancient building containing Roman ruins, and another recently with his New York City gallery, Edwyn Houk.

For his professional work he uses color and an arsenal of equipment, including a large-view camera, but for his own work he uses only black and white, usually with a 50-mm lens, sometimes a 90-mm.

He let slip one trade secret about how he gets those completely relaxed, unposed pictures - he uses an accomplice, preferably of the opposite sex.

"Stand the decoy between yourself and your real goal," he said, and "pretend to take her picture; shoot between her ear and her shoulder with a 200 mm lens while directly facing your target."

"To The Dogs"

The photographer commented that he had been amazed at the escalation in value of photographic prints, including his own, in the last decade, noting that an early Kertesz postcard had sold for $250,000 just the other day.

Mr. Erwitt's work has been published in a number of books, among them "Personal Exposures," "Between the Sexes," "On the Beach," and "To the Dogs." In a field of publishing notorious for single printings, "Personal Exposures," for instance, is in its fifth and has been translated into Spanish, French, Japanese, and German.

"To the Dogs" is also the name of a benefit art show tomorrow from 5 to 8 p.m. for the Animal Rescue Fund of the Hamptons at the Lizan Tops Gallery in East Hampton. The show, for which the 5 to 8 p.m. benefit is a preview, includes 16 of Mr. Erwitt's large-scale photos.

Sammy, Not Rolling

In the twists and turns of a complicated marital history, Mr. Erwitt, who has been coming to the East End for 35 years, was interviewed by the pool in the same East Hampton house he lost in his last divorce settlement and then regained. (He has been married three times and has six children: Ellen, Misha, David, Jennifer, Sasha, and Amy.)

Sammy, a cairn terrier who travels everywhere but England with his master, bounded out from a bed of lavender where Mr. Erwitt's companion, Pia Frankenberg, was gardening, to demonstrate that dogs don't always make cooperative subjects.

Sammy, it seems, rolls over on command. On this occasion, of course, he just stared stolidly in front of him and pretended he hadn't heard. But as soon as Jonny, Ms. Frankenberg's son, brought out a cookie, Sammy started rolling like a little sausage before any command was given at all. It made the visitor appreciate the patience, quick response, and luck that must have gone into creating an entire book of hilarious dog pictures.

Mr. Erwitt, however, says his way of getting a reaction from a dog is to bark at it. Signs of his laconic sense of humor crop up around the house - in two life-size figures of military policemen outside the front door and a large Statue of Liberty in the back- yard, for instance.

He is currently working on a book about "museum watching," compiling amusing pictures taken over many decades as a confirmed museum visitor in whatever city he finds himself. "If I can settle down a bit, it'll be ready for the Frankfurt Book Fair," he said.

Mr. Erwitt enjoys it when his photos make people laugh and, while he doesn't aim for it, thinks that to make them laugh and cry is the supreme goal.

"The work I care about is terribly simple. I observe, I try to entertain, but above all I want pictures that are emotional. Little else interests me in photography."