The Man and the Moment
A chance to re-read our rare archive interview text by the late Pat Booth with Elliott Erwitt recorded in Erwitt's home in New York between 1982 and 2007. Edited by Mike von Joel
Text: Pat Booth | Images: Elliott Erwitt/Magnum
NOW RESIDENT in the USA, Elliot Erwitt was born in Paris in 1928, the son of Russian émigré parents. His family emigrated to America in 1939 after spending some years in Italy, firstly to New York and soon afterwards to Los Angeles. At high school he became interested in photography and worked part time as a printer and processor for a company providing publicity stills for the Hollywood film studios. When he was sixteen he bought an old plate camera and started to experiment. At that stage, photography seemed to him to be ‘a reasonable way of making a living’. In 1948, after attending classes at the Los Angeles City College, he moved back to New York where his first job was to take pictures of famous authors for book jackets. He worked mainly for the Knopf publishing house and during this period photographed, among others, H. L. Mencken, Thomas Mann and Conrad Richter. Edward Steichen saw and admired his work and got him a job at the studio of Valentino Sarra, a commercial photographer. Later, Erwitt worked with Roy Stryker, the former head of the FSA (Farm Security Administration) Historical Division, and travelled with him to Pittsburgh to document the city for the Mellon Foundation.
In 1951 Elliott joined the army where he worked as a dark-room technician. While stationed in France he visited the Paris offices of Magnum where he met Robert Capa, who suggested that, on leaving the army, he should join the organisation. This he did in 1953. Erwitt became President of Magnum in 1959 and campaigned actively for photographers’ rights. Since then he has worked in films, advertising, photojournalism and architectural photography, and his work has been published in most of the world’s major magazines. His work is part of the permanent collections at the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Smithsonian Institution; the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris; and numerous other international museums and galleries.
Elliott Erwitt is a humorous man with a finely developed sense of the comic and the ridiculous. His personal photographs rely on keenly observed juxtapositions. They poke gentle fun at the world in a benign and economical way, deflating pomposity, exposing hypocrisy. He is a bitter enemy of pretension in photography and hates wordy explanations and pseudo-intellectual comments on his photographs, which he firmly believes should be allowed to speak for themselves. He has no time for artistic posturings which scorn the commercial aspects of photography. His commissioned work and his own personal photographs are complementary - the one gives him the freedom to produce the other. In a medium that is sometimes in danger of too great a preoccupation with its own mysteries and techniques, Elliott Erwitt’s brilliantly witty work is a refreshing reminder that life is fun and that photography is no exception.
Elliott Erwitt Studio
NEW YORK, 1982
Have you been influenced by any particular photographer?
No, but all the great photographers have influenced me to some extent - people like Cartier-Bresson, Atget and Kertész. Steichen helped me a bit when he was in charge of the Department of Photography at MoMA. He actually arranged a job for me with Valentino Sarra when I needed one. He also bought a number of my pictures for the permanent collection at MOMA. He has encouraged a lot of other photographers, in that way too.
Do you mix much with other photographers?
No, although I do have a few friends from Magnum. Groups of photographers are like gatherings of dentists or psychiatrists - they get together and talk shop. I find that I’m interested in my subjects, not in my colleagues. Travelling and pointing my camera at people is what I like to do.
I’ve just been talking to Robert Doisneau. What do you think of him?
Doisneau is a wonderful photographer. He has a very unusual way of putting things. He’s highly intelligent and he’s also literate, which is rare for a photographer. I think he’s finally getting the attention he deserves. The reason he has not attracted a lot of notice before is that he’s not a good public relations man - and that’s all part of his charm.
Magnum has been important in your life and through it you’ve fought and won many battles for photographers. Tell me about the organisation.
Magnum is a co-operative and I’m one of the owners. It’s a group to which all the members contribute a percentage of their earnings. I’ve been represented by and associated with Magnum since I came out of the army in 1953. Through Magnum I fought for the rights of photographers to own their own negatives - to do whatever they wished with them. Magnum has had an important influence on the way photography is regarded, but it hasn’t had any influence on my own work.
One of your books used the words ‘Anti-Photograph’ in the title. Why was that?
It was just a catchy title. The man who thought it up once told me why it was appropriate, but I’ve totally forgotten what he said! In general I’m against titles for books and photographs. I describe my photos with a place and a date. The picture speaks better than words.
What do you think about fashion photography?
It’s the simplest-minded photography of all. I loathe the mystique that surrounds it - all those silly people taking silly pictures. The most necessary attribute of a fashion photographer is to be an excellent salesman. He is essentially taking identification photographs of women who’ve been carefully prepared by great designers, hairdressers and the finest make-up artists. Then the fashion photographer comes along with his wind machines and motor drives and records the models. They’re not doing much, but they have to pretend they are. It’s quite enterprising in a way. I’m not against people making a living by taking fashion pictures - or passport photographs - but I’m against the pretension that goes with it, although from a marketing viewpoint I suppose it’s necessary. Without all that mystique they probably wouldn’t earn anything!
Do you think there have been any great fashion photographers?
I suppose out of the thousands there are half a dozen that stand out from the crowd. Avedon was interesting at the beginning of his career. He was one of the innovators, but who cares about innovation in fashion photography? I’ve been on the fringes of it, and I guess it’s amusing for a couple of weeks. But imagine devoting your life to it! When somebody does do something inventive, it’s repeated until everyone is bored. You know - someone uses a little Vaseline on the lens and that’s repeated for ages. Then somebody else decides it would be fun to kick the camera stand, and you see that for a bit. I’m oversimplifying, but you get the idea.
John Szarkowski once said that your pictures dealt with the empty spaces between happenings. He has used the phrase ‘The Indecisive Moment’ to describe the subject matter of your photos. What do you think of that?
I had heard about ‘The Indecisive Moment’, but not the empty spaces. Did he really say that? It sounds good, doesn’t it? Sounds deep!
So you find remarks like that about your work a bit pretentious - what do you feel about pretensions?
I like them - in my subjects! I’m very much against intellectualising and ‘clever’ rationalisations of the reasons and motives behind one’s work. The picture is the important thing. I always want to replace the words in photographic books with pictures. If there must be words, they should be left to the professional writers. The problem is it’s difficult to get publishers interested in what a picture book should be. They like structures and themes because that’s what the book market wants. Publishers say that to sell a book you need pictures of naked girls, or landscapes or seascapes, or sunsets or close-ups of flowers. That way you appeal to an ‘identifiable’ market. Actually it’s quite surprising that the books I’ve produced have been published at all because they’re really monographs, collections of the snaps I’ve taken. They’re a response to what I see. One of those books was actually sold as a ‘dog’ book - which it wasn’t - because the editors had identified a market that liked dogs. The books that I want to do would just be selections of photographs taken at random, with little or no accompanying text and no structure.
You earn your living from your advertising photography, but it’s the photographs you take for personal reasons that seem to me the most interesting. When you’re doing a job for a client and getting paid for it, it’s quite a different matter from taking pictures for your own amusement.
When you’re working for others there are rules and briefs that have to be fulfilled. You only have freedom when you’re working for yourself. Of course, the personal work often leads to commercial jobs, and the commissioned work also allows me to take my own photographs. The two situations are just different - sometimes I choose one, sometimes the other. The flexibility lets me live in a manner and style that satisfies me. The personal work is a bonus and gives me great pleasure.
In your view, what are the most important qualities a good photographer needs?
Anyone can become a photographer by buying a camera, just as anyone can become a writer by buying a pencil, but to be good requires more than mere technical skill. You can tell immediately if someone is good. They’re gifted with a sense of style, a sense of composition and a sense of sense. It’s instinctive. All the technique in the world doesn’t compensate for the inability to notice things. In fact it just gets in the way. The most important thing is to be able to ‘see’.
Nevertheless, how important to you is technique?
The content is the most important thing. If the content is there, controlling what happens to the print is no problem. For me, printing is of secondary concern. The vital part is the actual taking of the picture. To some extent that’s intuitive - you don’t think too hard about it beforehand. It happens very quickly.
Which lens do you prefer to work with?
That’s a difficult question to answer. I use whatever lens is appropriate, but when I carry a camera around for pleasure I have a lighter lens on, so I suppose a lot of my work gets shot on a 50mm lens.
What do you feel about collecting photography? Do you own the prints of other photographers?
Yes I have a few. Josef Koudelka, Kertész, and other colleagues of mine at Magnum. I like almost all of their fine pictures.
What are you doing at the moment?
I’m making part of a documentary film on luxury that I’m shooting around the world. It’s an amusing look at the pursuit of expensive pleasure. On Saturday, for instance, I’m doing a Harley Street doctor who rejuvenates you with special injections. The film is commissioned by Home Box Office, an American cable television company owned by Time Inc. I did an hour-long documentary for them last year on the modelling profession and it did well, so I’ve got a larger budget this time. I find making movies challenging, though it’s almost impossible to stay inside the budget no matter how big it is to start with.
What do you feel is the relationship between moving pictures and stills?
I don’t think really there is one, except that both are visual.
Comedy and a keen sense of the ridiculous are obviously important in your work.
I once wanted to be a clown and I once wanted to be a comedy writer. Also I’m attracted to emotional situations, and I’m bored by serious people.
Elliott Erwitt home in Manhattan
Elliott, when we last met to record a conversation you were about to go to London to make a documentary movie for HBO. You then went on to make a whole batch of much less serious television programmes for them - almost a whole other career?
Indeed I made 18 films for Home Box Office (HBO) in the 1980's. They were shot all around the world and making fun of how people behave and spend money. I would have liked to continue filming but a new and most unsympathetic person came to be in charge at HBO and as the feelings were mutual, I went back to my regular day job of photography after many years. Producing and filming was a good period for me while it lasted and it also gave me the opportunity to continue photographing on the back of my productions.
Does the still image have more or less power than moving pictures with a sound track - are they, in fact, comparable?
Movie making and photographing have little in common. I would say the only substantial thing in common is the need of visual sense for the composition images that are shot. Usually good still photographers do not make good film makers. More often ordinary photographers make good film makers. There are exceptions of course.
You campaigned during your time as President of Magnum for the rights of photographers over their own work. Has digital image making and the internet helped or hindered this?
Digital image making has made almost everyone except some lower primates into photographers. But 'photographers' does not mean 'good photographers'. Same as nice pencils don't make good writers. As requirements in our business are not great, the ease of digital photography and distribution of it has reduced quality in general, thus making copyright even more important - if less relevant - in our business.
You began life with a Rolleiflex - what cameras do you use these days.
I use whatever camera is best suited for the job. Everything from a plate 8"x 10" to a digital 35mm equivalent. But my walking around camera is a film Leica with a normal 50mm lens.
Every photographer today has to address the issues of digital and film. What conclusions did you come to?
I have no lofty conclusions about digital verses film. Digital is surely most useful for speed and economy and so best for commercial work that does - is not likely - to have much of an afterlife.
Your work contains so many ‘classics’ it is impossible to single any one image out. But does the passage of time alter the original ‘story’ in some way, can a picture mature into something else entirely different to the photographer‘s original intent?
I do not understand your question. I suppose the way one uses old pictures in exhibitions or book layouts can produce a different perception. In my personal photography I am not concerned with original intent. I am just concerned in trying to take a good picture.
You have always been scathing about certain directions in photography - fashion in particular. Of course, even Steichen took fashion snaps. Has anything happened in the last 25 years to change your mind?
I have nothing against 'fashion photography'. There is a lot in the category which is wonderful. Perhaps I don't appreciate fashionable photography. That is the flavour of the month which is the staple of most fashion photography. I do have plenty against lousy fashion or any kind of boring, and banal photography.
Not only are there innumerable photographic images being created every hour but they are being ‘published’ to world by internet, by email and so on. This saturation must be having a detrimental effect on the perception of photography as a ‘fine art’?
I agree with you on that one. See my previous comment. The term of 'fine art' as so loosely applied to photography is most disagreeable to me.
Your background is so fabulously international and yet you have chosen to be based in the USA - which some might think is quite parochial despite its apparent multi-culturalism. Do you miss the intellectual heritage of Europe?
I do not think there is anything intellectual with good photography whether European or Mongolian. I do not miss the supposed 'intellectual heritage of Europe'. I do miss a good plate of non intellectual spaghetti al dente which is missing in most countries and only peculiar to Italy.
A long life - and a long career. Have your thoughts turned to posterity yet? Is a Foundation in the offing?
I am still perpendicular and active as ever. Mostly I am thinking of my next book and exhibition and the offer I just had to do some photographing in Japan. I will happily entertain any suggestions as to a Foundation.
You have recently volunteered to be on the committee for the new Sony World Photography Awards. Are you a regular supporter of these type of initiatives for emerging talent?
Regarding Sony: it seemed like a good idea and a nice junket. If it all works out I will get back to you on it and how it went. I do get very many requests of this sort and normally I do not accept. But of course I (myself and my Magnum colleagues) are always interested in emerging talent as possible candidates for our organisation. Award venues are just one of many places to find such people.
If I asked you to choose one single image of yours that expresses everything you feel about life and the great conundrum of human existence - would you be able to do it?
You must be kidding! I am just a photographer and not Jesus Christ.
STATE MEDIA is grateful to Elliott Erwitt and Magnum Photos for permission to reproduce the images used in this feature.
' Avedon was interesting at the beginning of his career. He was one of the innovators, but who cares about innovation in fashion photography? I’ve been on the fringes of it, and I guess it’s amusing for a couple of weeks.
' Publishers say that to sell a book you need pictures of naked girls, or landscapes or seascapes, or sunsets or close-ups of flowers... Actually it’s quite surprising that the books I’ve produced have been published at all because they’re really monographs, collections of the snaps I’ve taken. '