It’s hard to really pay attention these days. The times we live in are loud, distracting, and complicated, and I continually find myself trying to find new ways to refocus and keep things simple. It follows that today’s FFP spotlights the great Elliot Erwitt, a street photographer and photojournalist who made a career out of paying attention.
Erwitt’s images often display an uncanny sense of social awareness, artistic timing, and patience, while also offering his own profound and often humorous view on life. His work is well-crafted and thoughtful, and especially valuable to those who might need some help trying to focus and simplify.
Let’s get into it.
Jacqueline Kennedy at John F. Kennedy’s Funeral, 1963
Elliot Erwitt is known as one the best street/reportage photographers in the history of photography in part for his mastery of the so-called “decisive moment.” My favorite example of this is Erwitt’s photo of Jackie Kennedy at John F. Kennedy’s funeral.
It takes a lot of skill to be able to capture a fleeting moment, but it takes a special talent to reveal the truths that lie within that moment. Jackie Kennedy’s grief-ridden, almost desperate expression in this moment is striking. Through it, Erwitt not only captures the desperation and confusion of an entire nation losing their leader, but the naked pain of someone who, just a few days prior, watched her husband die in her arms. It’s powerful and revealing, yet honest – a true masterpiece of American photojournalism.
California, USA, 1955
While Erwitt certainly has a knack for capturing the fleeting moments in life, he also has the ability to pack a lot of information into one photo. In California, USA 1955, he not only captures an intimate moment but the “California dream” itself.
The popular vision of California is one filled with sunshine, romance, and endless possibility, and this image has all of these things. What’s more stereotypically Californian than being parked along the Pacific Coast Highway at sundown with your best girl? Aside from being stuck in traffic, not much.
Erwitt uses a few very basic but effective techniques in this image. The reflection in the side view mirror is placed according to the rule of thirds for visual emphasis, and the surrounding foreground and background all serve to contextualize the reflection. We have the curves of a classic American car, a rocky roadside precipice, and an ocean over which hangs that famous sunset to place us squarely in postwar California. Simple, but deceptively so; elegant and effective.
Kyoto, Japan, 1977
One of Erwitt’s signature subjects and motifs is the dog. Erwitt himself states that he likes dogs because they “don’t object to being photographed and don’t ask for prints.” I also suspect he likes taking pictures of dogs because they’re so damn cute, but I digress.
Erwitt’s book Dog Dogs not only showcases his near-obsession with dogs but also considers dogs as photographic subjects. In Dog Dogs, Erwitt bestows the same importance to dogs as he does to humans in this body of work which makes for some of the best dog photos out there.
Of these photos, my favorite is one in which a woman and her dog are out on the street, both scratching an itch at the same time. There isn’t much to say about it technically other than that it takes a disciplined trigger finger and a sense of social awareness to time up an image like this. This is commendable in itself, but even more commendable is Erwitt’s method of getting the shot. Erwitt actually barked at the dog to get a reaction, and the owner mistook his bark for her dog’s and kicked the dog. After both calmed down, they both scratched themselves and Erwitt took his shot.
Capital S “Street Photography” has a somewhat inaccurate reputation for being an inherently serious medium. Erwitt’s photography consistently subverts this notion by finding humor in the absurdities and weird coincidences of life. As he says himself, “If my pictures help some people to see things in a certain way, it’s probably to look at serious things non-seriously. Everything’s serious. Everything’s not serious.”
Honolulu from 1983 is my personal favorite out of Erwitt’s many not-so-serious photos. Erwitt seems to love taking normally disparate subjects and linking them together in unconventional ways, and in this photo he’s done it with a bride and what looks to be a Toyota MR2. Both happen to be veiled which suggests a sense of hidden beauty and decorum, which makes more sense for the bride than it does a small Japanese sports car. The serious tone of this photo elevates the humor, especially for anybody who shares an affinity for photography and old Toyotas.
Rubber Gloves, 1965
Though Erwitt is renowned for his situational sensitivity, he also excels at revealing the importance of very specific, commonplace details. For example, his book Elliot Erwitt’s Handbook is a study of the communicative power of hands. Erwitt blurs the line between fine art photography and photojournalism in this book by simply shifting the focus of the subject in a photograph.
A particularly poignant photo in the collection is Rubber Gloves, taken in Sicily in 1965. This is a photo whose strength comes from both within and without. There are no hands here, but the gloves in the photo are placed in a way that looks almost human. Though Erwitt leaves the meaning of their placement up to interpretation, the intertwining of the gloves does seem to suggest an underlying humanity in the things we make and use, as well as an ever-present connection between things in general. Even though that’s all just interpretation, the fact that Erwitt is making us look at these things more closely means that he’s succeeded.
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