Let me introduce you to one of the photographers that I consider a legend – a living legend at the age of 80. He is Elliott Erwitt. If Henri Cartier-Bresson is widely known as a photographer who masters the art of capturing a scene at a “decisive moment” Elliott Erwitt is known as the master of “indecisive moment”.
He takes great pictures of everyday scene normally without his subjects realizing it. The scenes he captured appear to be very familiar to us yet it takes an enormous talent to capture the way Elliott Erwitt did.
Erwitt is one of the early members of Magnum co-operative, founded on the principle of photographers retaining rights to their works after being published. Yet his photographs are very different from most of his his Magnum counterparts’ as Lesley White aptly described in his article on Elliott Erwitt entitled The man who saw the world “He is not seeking to thrill or divert, or do anything but present a snap recording of round-the-corner reality, yet Erwitt shows us that the world is sweeter than his Magnum stablemates – war photographers, indignant campaigners, messengers of famine and blight who enjoy the mantle of credibility in their own ranks – would have us believe. His best pictures always leave you wondering: the little black boy grinning and pressing a toy gun against his head in Louisiana in 1952; the fully equipped deep-sea diver emerging from the Serpentine, gesticulating to onlookers as if describing the one that got away – or begging to be let out of the rancid water; the spooky Parisian kids on All Saints’ Day wearing Laurel and Hardy masks.”
Erwitt rarely directs or stages his subject although he admits has nothing against it. “I’m not a purist. You are powerful as a photographer. You can make people do all kinds of silly things, but a lot of times they don’t need directing.” Said Erwitt. When asked by Lesley White how he works he just answered “You put the film in your camera.”
Erwitt was being very humble when he remarked that photography is pretty simple stuff and what you should do is just react to what you see and take many, many pictures. Out of the numerous shots you would have a good chance to bag a few good ones if you are lucky or you would have none if it was your bad day but the point is you have to keep on shooting. He even said that perhaps an orang utan would come up with some good photos if he was given a camera and shoots lots of pictures. Read an interview with Elliott Erwitt done by Leo Benedictus on what makes an image stand the test of time as some of his favourite photographs went on show entitled Unseen held at HackelBury Fine Art, London, from June 13 – August 2, 2008.
Despite his seemingly simple approach to photography with a touch of humour he has an eye for the humane and his pictures reveal the candid human emotions that very few photographers can emulate. His personal works have been published in countless monographs. His photographs are collected and exhibited in museums around the world including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.; the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Modern Art, New York; and Kunsthaus, Zurich.