Learn from the Masters: Elliott Erwitt

I have decided to start a new photography series: “Learn from the Masters”. I would like to introduce you to some of the most iconic photographers, who have shaped modern photojournalism, street photography and photo documentary. I believe that nothing will help you to improve as photographers as learning from the masters of this art and taking them as a reference point.

Every article will describe the life and achievements of each photographer and will be concluded by the lessons that we can learn from each master.

 

Career

Erwitt was born in Paris in 1928. His parents were Jewish-Russian immigrants, who soon after Erwitt’s birth moved to Italy. At the age of 10, Erwitt and his family migrated to the United States, where he undertook a formal education in filmography and photography. Erwitt enrolled at at the Los Angeles City College and the New School for Social Research, where he studied until 1950. One year later, he was drafted for the US army, where he served in Italy and Germany for two years.

Before entering the US army, during his studies, Erwitt developed his passion for Rolliflex and travelled with his camera to France and Italy several times.

During the time spent in the US army as a photography assistant, Erwitt connected with several people who shaped the path of his life. He was influenced by the style of Robert Capa while connecting with Roy Stryker. The latter hired Erwitt to work on a photography project for the Standard Oil Company first and commissioned a photo documentary of the city of Pittsburg then.

Erwitt developed a very sarcastic and irreverent photographic style. Indeed, he worked on several projects, which were focused on dogs, such as: Dog DogsWoof and Elliott Erwitt’s Dogs.

In 1953, Erwitt joined Magnum Photography and worked as freelance photographer for several magazines, such as: Collier’sLook, LIFE and Holiday. He keeps producing outstanding commercial and documentary work to date.

Erwitt escalated Magnum Photography up to the point of serving as President for three years in the ’60s.

Starting from the ’70s, Erwitt devoted most of his energies to videography. This effort was repaid by the production of several documentaries and comedies.

Erwitt’s work has been exhibited all around the world and he published more than 20 books, which are all associated by a sharp irony.

In recognition of his outstanding work, Erwitt was awarded with the Royal Photographic Society’s Centenary Medal and an honorary fellowship among others.

 

Lessons Learnt:

1. Photograph for Your Passion

Elliott Erwitt's black and white photograph of a reflection of a couple kissing

Elliott Erwitt, 1955, Magnum Photos

Photographing is an artistic process and it can be extremely difficult to approach if we do not enjoy what we are doing. Creativity is best expressed when we are passionate about the subject, situation or genre we are photographing.

Erwitt defines himself as follows:

I take photographs for a living, also for my pleasure. Fundamentally I am a professional amateur. I like to travel, to see the world and to check out the human condition. Most recently I have travelled all through Scotland.

The idea of amateur is the one of a photographer that makes photographs following his passions. Therefore, being able to define ourselves as such is a marvellous way to explicit to the world that our job coincides with out fascination for photography.

As we know, getting to the point of being able to accept the jobs that fit with our passion is something that might require time, hard work and exceptional commitment. However, Erwitt is the glaring example that it is indeed possible to achieve a fulfilling career while following our passions.

 

2. Follow Your Inspiration 

Elliott Erwitt's black and white photograph of a man holding an umbrella while jumping a pond

Elliott Erwitt, 1989, Magnum Photos

Photography, similarly to any other creative process, is about being able to transfer our feelings, skills and inspiration into our work. People who engage with us by commissioning a job – which can be a photo documentary as well as a simple portrait – look to receive something that encompasses our vision of the world, our perspective on the subject being photographed.

Erwitt said:

For me, the kind of photography that I like to do has no restrictions. What is more inviting for a photographer? The character comes out if you walk around in the streets, to events, festivals, theatres or just walking on the streets, as long as you do not manufacture photographs. I think that you see what people are like, what the atmosphere is like, the character is like. The wonderful thing about this job is that it is not supposed to be pretty, you are not supposed to do pretty things. You are  supposed to do real things and that is always preferable.

This is a great thought he shares with us to testify how photographers find inspiration by experiencing the environment to photograph in person. By feeling the vibe that a certain place, character or situation shares with us, we are able to photograph and extrapolate the truth and reality of that specific moment.

So, as photographers we should always immerse ourselves in the situation that we would like to capture. We should not force ourselves to represent what is pretty, which is what others would like us to show them. On the other hand, we should eternalise what is real, the truth of a situation before our lens.

Probably, this is the highest expression of freedom under a job situation: being able to represent what is the reality of facts, rather than beautifying a circumstance in order to satisfy someone else’s ego.

 

3. Slow Down

Elliott Erwitt's black and white photograph off a kid playing bu holding a gun to his head in Pittsburg

Elliott Erwitt, 1950, Magnum Photos

In an interview to TeNeues Publishing, Erwitt stated as follows:

The digital age is indeed corruption the world of photography. The problem with digital photography is that it is too easy. When things get too easy, people get sloppy and sloppiness is not a good thing in photography. Even though photography is pretty simple stuff, it is still took a little bit of effort, a little bit of thought when it was not digital. Now I think that a chimpanzee with a digital camera could get pretty good results at least not good results but visible results and that is the problem: too easy, too much and maybe bot too much thinking behind it. I do not mean to insult the chimpanzees. I mean there are quite good photographers as well.

The trick that Erwitt has been using and is still using nowadays is slowing down by using films. Film photography can be an excellent way to improve our photography for several reasons. Firstly, we attach a value to every single photograph. Indeed, we spent some of our money to buy a roll of film and every wasted frame corresponds to burning some money. Moreover, most analogue cameras require to be much more careful about settings and having them right before shooting. This enables the photographer to think much more carefully before pressing the shutter. Finally, a roll of film is composed by a limited amount of frames – most commonly 24 or 36 for 35mm films. Therefore, this poses a constraint to the photographer, preventing her to shoot everything and anything while relying on an almost infinite SD card.

 

4. Create an Alter-ego

Elliott Erwitt's photography of a fish smoking a cigar under the persona of Solidor

Andre S. Solidor aka Elliott Erwitt, Magnum Photos

This is quite a curious yet interesting point. The Independent interviewed Erwitt on the matter and this is an extrapolation of their article:

As part of a campaign against pretension of all kinds, Erwitt has invented the persona of Solidor to “satirize the kooky excesses of contemporary photography” and “the art world”. “I’ve always been a little suspicious of the art world anyway. I always thought that a lot of the art is simply what you can get away with.”

Images include ridiculous smoking fish heads, while gratuitous nudity becomes the norm, with pictures such as Metaphysical Reflection showing a naked woman reflected in a pool of azure water. “Well, that sums up Solidor,” says Erwitt.

I think that the idea of creating a persona is quite genial to be honest. Indeed, it allowed Erwitt to shake every prejudice away from himself. Have you ever heard of that restaurant that has a terrible chef and suddenly changes his name but keeps everything else the same? In our modern world, the name is the identity; by changing the name we can change who we are and how other people perceive us. Erwitt got rid of all the prejudices that people had of him being an outstanding photojournalist and street photographer by creating an ad hoc persona.

This move is quite brilliant from a marketing perspective. At the same time,  it perfectly reflects the satiric and sarcastic charisma of Erwitt, who used this pretext in order to mock the world of contemporary photography.

 

5. Do It for Fun

Elliott Erwitt's black and white photograph of two dogs

Elliott Erwitt, 1974, Magnum Photos

This is quite an astonishing tip that Erwitt gives to young aspiring photographers. Indeed, he advises to approach this artistic medium as a hobby first, which might eventually transform into a career later on. He stated the following:

Do it for fun and maybe it will develop into a profession. However, I would advice people not to start out and make photography into a profession because it is too tough at the moment and you really have to be involved and dedicated. So, if the dedication comes as a consequence of your hobby or your interest, then great but is the end is what you are aiming for I think you happen not to be so successful. 

During the same interview with David Alan Harvey, Erwitt also added:

Photography is still a hobby to me. The useful part is what I do for fun, for amusement. The fact that is has become something else if fine but it was nothing intentional. I take pictures because I like to and I take pictures for people because they pay me. It works quite differently.

These comments left me speechless and quite astonished indeed. I can tell that the interviewer had the very same reaction . However the spontaneity of this advice leads me to think that this is quite a good approach to enter the world of photography.

Indeed, aiming to the end is always a bad process to achieve something. On the other hand, looking at an objective step by step allows us to better perform in each part, while maintaining a passionate and enjoyable approach to what we are doing.

 

Conclusion 

Erwitt is a master of street photography and photojournalism. Thanks to the clever and sarcastic invention of his persona, the master was able to ironise on the world of contemporary photography while producing outstanding work.

We can learn several lessons from the renowned career and passionate approach to photography of Erwitt.

Firstly, photograph for your passion. This implies that we should never lose touch with our amateurial spirit, which allows us to approach the medium with fresh passion and an evergreen curiosity.

Secondly, we should always follow our inspiration and feelings. In order to create a compelling body of work, we should immerse ourselves in the reality to be documented and follow the flow.

Then, we should focus on quality rather than quantity. Using an analogue format might be a good approach to slow us down and make us think more carefully about every single photograph, so to improve the final outcome.

Moreover, we might think to create a persona to enter the photographic world under false pretences and reinvent our work to astonish the viewers with new techniques and approaches to the medium. Never forget that your name is your identity and by changing it you can modify the way people look at you.

Finally, you should photograph for fun. This means that being a successful photographer should not be your objective right from the start. Indeed, you should start as a passionate amateur and let dedication come as a consequence. Only by being dedicated and passionate you can achieve a brilliant career.

 

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16 thoughts on “Learn from the Masters: Elliott Erwitt”

    1. I am glad you like them and hope you find them useful. I am to share with you te life and lessons of 10 great masters. So we are only half way though the learning process. Hope you will still enjoy the upcoming articles

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree. Some of these ideas were quite new to me as well and I think that I will give them a try.

      Let me know if you will implement them and if you will benefit from them!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I was very inspired by these photos and especially the quotes that you used from each photographer. I love the idea here. I have done very little research about original professional photographers, so these blogs definitely helped clue me in on some of the amazing accomplishments and photographs these guys tackled.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Good article. Elliott Erwitt is the source of a lot of very good quotes. One I particular like is this: ‘Good photography is not about ‘Zone Printing’ or any other Ansel Adams nonsense. It’s just about seeing. You either see, or you don’t see. The rest is academic. Photography is simply a function of noticing things. Nothing more.’

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree, photography is parla about seeing and composing what you see in a way that is meaningful and visually appealing. However, Ansel Adams has been a great researcher in the files of light manipulation. Light is indeed a crucial factor in photography. Thanks to light we can better express our message. Therefore, even though we must be conscious of composition and the subject we photograph, we should also take into account how light affects the message we are transmitting.

      Like

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