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Work The wit of Elliott Erwitt

By Robert Kiener
“I’m not a serious
photographer like
many of my
That is to say, I am
serious about not
being serious.”

The advice I would give to any
photographer—young, old or
in-between—is to explore anything
visual because this is, after all,
how you express your artistry.
Look at paintings, movies, draw-
ings, sculptures—look at anything
visual and try to integrate that
into your visual sense. After that,
go out and take pictures and
keep on taking pictures!”

Elliott Erwitt is freezing.

It’s just after six a.m. on Jan. 20, 2009, the
morning of Barack Obama’s inauguration,
and Erwitt, the 80-year old photographer who’s
captured every president since Harry Truman,
is on assignment for Newsweek to cover the
day’s festivities. He’s arrived early—the inau-
guration won’t begin until 10 a.m.—to claim a
good spot in the press photographers’ gallery.
It is a bitterly cold morning, and like many
other photographers covering the event, he’s
wrapped in so many layers of clothing he can
barely move his arms.
He eventually gets his inauguration image,
then goes to his hotel, where he sheds his jump-
suit and jacket, pours himself a small whiskey
to warm up, and falls into bed for a nap.
Several hours later he wakes up and packs
his gear for his next assignment: a photo of
Barack and Michelle Obama at one of the 10
inaugural balls they’ll attend that evening.
Washington, D.C., is gridlocked so Erwitt and
his assistant walk across town to the Home
States Ball at the Walter E. Washington Con-
vention Center. He sets up alongside hun-
dreds of other pool photographers.
The second the Obamas arrive on stage, the
clicking of camera shutters sounds like a flur-
ry of machine-gun fire. Erwitt slowly raises his
Canon EOS Mark II and clicks off one picture.
Then another. Then another. He’s finished.
As he lowers his camera to pack it away,
his assistant asks, “What are you doing? Are
you done?”


“Yeah,” says Erwitt calmly. “I got the shot.” not only the historic moment of the inaugu- her famous subway grate pose; the finger-
The picture, which ran in Newsweek, fea- ration of the first Black president in Ameri- pointing Nixon-Khrushchev Kitchen Debate in
tures the Obamas waving at a sea of party go- can history but also powerfully illustrates the Moscow; segregated water fountains; a grieving
ers, each of whom holds up their cellphone to country’s new digital age. It is a picture taken Jacqueline Kennedy; hundreds of humorous
photograph the same moment. It became an by a photographer who has mastered his craft dog images. His work is known the world over.
instant icon and has remained one of Erwitt’s and also had learned to recognize and cap- He has won almost every photography honor,
best-known, most-reprinted images. ture the moment. He got the perfect picture, including the Lucie Lifetime Achievement
“That inauguration ball photo is the perfect knew he got it, and then left!” Award, the International Center for Photog-
illustration of Elliott’s genius,” says Mark Lubell, raphy’s Infinity Award, and the Royal Photo-
executive director of the International Cen- ICONIC CAREER graphic Society’s Centenary Medal. One-man
ter of Photography, a former director of Mag- Looking through Erwitt’s massive catalog of pho- shows of his work have been held at the Museum
num Photos, and a longtime friend of Erwitt’s. tographs made over more than 70 years, one of Modern Art in New York, The Art Institute
“Like he has done in so many of his pictures, might think he’s been everywhere and photo- of Chicago, the Smithsonian in Washington,
he has synthesized a moment perfectly and graphed everyone and everything. Really. His D.C., the Paris Museum of Modern Art, the
given you its very essence. The image includes iconic photos of Marilyn Monroe, including Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid, the Barbican
in London, and many others. He has published
more than 50 (“I’ve lost count,” he jokes) books
of his work. The most recent, “Found Not
Lost,” is scheduled for release this winter.
Erwitt was born in Paris to Russian parents
and after living in Italy immigrated to New
York when he was 10 years old. After study-
ing photography at Los Angeles City College,
he joined the Army and eventually began a
freelance career, taking assignments for mag-
azines such as Collier’s, Look, Life, and Holiday.
A meeting in 1954 with Robert Capa led to
an invitation to join Magnum, where Capa
worked—and for three years headed up the
agency—throughout his career. It was during
these assignment-packed early years that,
as the New Yorker magazine has noted, Erwitt
“successfully juggled advertising and fashion
jobs while producing some of the most indel-
ible editorial photography of all time.”
Known for consistently excellent work, “All the technique
Erwitt’s photos of everyday life are as legend- in the world doesn’t
ary as his assigned commercial work. As one
compensate for the
writer explained, “Whatever Erwitt is photo-
graphing, his images are instantly recognizable inability to notice.”
by their combination of charm, wit, and melan-
choly.” Another praised Erwitt for his “pin-sharp
sense of compositional timing and an astound-
ing technical fluency.” Fellow photographer—
and nonagenarian—Harry Benson says of Erwitt,
“He is and always has been so professional
and consistent. If I were to be mentioned in
the same breath as him, I’d be very happy.”
Throughout his career, Erwitt, now 92, has
been able to produce compelling, lasting im-
ages in his commercial work as well as in his
personal photography. Indeed, Henri Cartier
Bresson, one of Erwitt’s early influencers and
a founder of Magnum, once said, “Elliott has,
to my mind, achieved a miracle working on


“I see no difference between
my pictures that people
consider amusing and the
rest. To me, it’s all serious
work—they’re just a reaction
to what I see. I don’t leave this
apartment in the morning
and say to myself ‘Today
I’m going to be funny and
tomorrow I’m going to be sad.’”


a chain-gang of commercial campaigns and phy is his hobby as well as his profession. A “Elliott is great at one-liners, and many of his
still offering a bouquet of stolen photos with hobby, he notes, is something you do because most humorous pictures share that sensibil-
a flavor, a smile from his deeper self.” you are dedicated to it. With an impish grin, ity. And like all of his work, the humorous im-
When asked how he has managed to pro- he adds, “It’s a good thing they use the same ages also display the way he’s always investi-
duce such a well-received body of personal materials. That makes it quite convenient.” gating and observing the world around him.”
work when on assignment for clients, he ex- Ask him how he’s had the time for personal Not surprisingly, given his love for comedy,
plains, “I have always brought two cameras; work with so many demanding assignments one of Erwitt’s heroes is Charlie Chaplin.
one for the client and one for me ... .” over the years and he quips, “I use a fast He’s too modest to agree that he himself is
According to Mark Lubell, “That’s true but shutter speed.” And why does he love photo- particularly funny, though. “My ex-wives
there is more to it than that. Elliott has always graphing dogs? “They don’t ask for prints.” don’t think I’m funny,” he says. But dig a little
been incredibly respectful and thankful for Erwitt’s grins, which are at once sly, ironic, deeper and he admits, “Making people laugh
his assignment work because he realized it and inviting, reflect the humor that is present is one of the highest achievements you can
gave him access to subjects and locations. He in much of his work. His witty images have been have. And when you can make them laugh
always worked hard for his clients.” variously described as “absurdist,” “playful,” and cry, like Chaplin, that’s the highest of all
“mischievous,” and “ironic.” The New York possible achievements.” •
ONE-LINERS Times dubbed him “the Henny Youngman of
Today, Erwitt often explains that photogra- photographic one-liners.” Says Mark Lubell, Robert Kiener is a writer in Vermont.

“The whole point of taking pictures is so that

you don’t have to explain things with words.”

Reprinted from January 2021 Professional Photographer magazine with permission.

Copyright ©Professional Photographers of America • PPMAG.COM JANUARY 2021 XX