Elliott Erwitt obituary

The American photographer Elliott Erwitt, who has died aged 95, was renowned for his largely unposed images of famous people. Among the political figures he caught on film were Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, laughing and waving a cigar in Havana (1964); Jacqueline Kennedy swathed in a black veil at her husband’s funeral in 1963; and Richard Nixon, pointing and jabbing his finger at Nikita Khrushchev’s chest in 1959.

Cultural figures included Marilyn Monroe showing a leg while filming The Seven Year Itch in 1954; Jack Kerouac, unusually meditative, wearing a tie, in 1953; and Dustin Hoffman, with whom Erwitt made a short film, The Many Faces of Dustin Hoffman (1968). Animals were his obsession, and he devoted several books to pictures of dogs, with titles such as Woof (2005) and DogDogs (1998), as well as another short film, I Bark at Dogs (2011).

He spent nearly 80 years behind a camera (for preference a Leica 35mm or a Rolleiflex medium format), selecting subjects from around the world, and working primarily in black-and-white, though he could use colour to make a point.

According to Erwitt, who disliked over-theoretical analysis: “Colour is descriptive. Black-and-white is interpretative.” He defined photography as “an art of observation” or “a biography of a moment”. He suggested that artistry lies in “finding something interesting in an ordinary place … I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.”

In his view everything has photographic potential. If you care to look, he wrote, “you can find pictures anywhere. It’s simply a matter of noticing things and organising them. You just have to care about what’s around you and have a concern with humanity and the human comedy.”

Nikita Khrushchev, left, and Richard Nixon, 1959. Elliott Erwitt was furious that the Republicans used his picture for the 1960 presidential campaign.
Nikita Khrushchev, left, and Richard Nixon, 1959. Elliott Erwitt was furious that the Republicans used his picture for the 1960 presidential campaign. Photograph: Harry Ransom Center Collection/Elliott Erwitt/Magnum Photos

He cared a great deal, politically and personally. Erwitt was furious rather than flattered that the Republicans used his Nixon/Khrushchev image (without his permission) for their 1960 presidential campaign, and sent a $500 invoice, which was paid. It can be viewed as Nixon bullishly asserting the US against the USSR, and represented what Erwitt most abhorred in US politics.

He was born Elio Ervitz in Paris, the son of Orthodox Jewish parents, Eugenia and Boris, who had fled Russia following the 1917 Revolution. His forenames were his father’s choice since “he had once attended the University of Rome … and liked it”, and he later anglicised his name. The family moved to Milan, until the rise of fascism prompted their return to Paris in 1938.

Although Erwitt’s parents had separated, a year later all three left together for New York, then Los Angeles. Erwitt completed his schooling there in 1947, and a year later he returned to New York to embark on film studies at the New School. He then joined the US army Signal Corps and, while serving in Europe (1951-53), his fluency in four languages assisted him in compiling his portfolio.

He gained further experience working as a film cameraman in France; a staffer for the Standard Oil Company and Pittsburgh Photo Library; and then – increasingly – as a contributor to a variety of new picture magazines including Look, Life and Holiday, which provided his entry into the prestigious Magnum Photo Agency, established in Paris and New York in 1947.

Elliott Erwitt at an exhibition of his work in Perpignan, France, in 2006.
Elliott Erwitt at an exhibition of his work in Perpignan, France, in 2006. Photograph: Eric Cabanis/AFP/Getty Images

Robert Capa, one of Magnum’s four founder members, recruited Erwitt, and a fellow founder, Henri Cartier-Bresson, championed him, describing him as “working on a chain-gang of commercial campaigns and still offering a bouquet of stolen photos with a flavour and smile from his inner self”. Praise indeed, which Erwitt later returned in a homage to Cartier-Bresson’s Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare (1932) with Umbrella Jump in Paris (1989), which captures the balletic leap of a man over a puddle beneath the Eiffel Tower during a rainstorm.

Alongside his sense of empathy, Erwitt maintained his sense of humour. Humans’ capacity for projecting their attitudes – and fashion fads – on to their pets was a reliable subject. One image, New York City, 1974 (Dog Legs), taken at knee level, shows a diminutive pooch in a fancy knitted beret, next to a pair of a women’s fashionable, shiny boots, with another pair of taller legs, clearly canine, completing the lineup. It was a perfect example of stylistic crossover: what appears to be a found image was in fact a shoe advert.

In another image from the same year, a disgruntled-looking bulldog squats on a brownstone doorstep, next to a much larger bulldog squatting on the lap of a human, obliterating any view of his master’s face. Erwitt not only loved dogs, but enjoyed seeing the world from a dog’s eye level.

Elliott Erwitt in front of his photograph DogDog at an exhibition in Düsseldorf, Germany, in 2005.
Elliott Erwitt pursuing his dog’s eye level view of the world in front of his photograph Dog Legs at an exhibition in Düsseldorf, Germany, in 2005. Photograph: Action Press/Shutterstock

He was not afraid of humour even in more ghoulish surroundings. In 1955, he shot the naturally preserved naked Mexican mummies lining the museum walls at Guanajuato. Their desiccated skins, slack jaws and awkwardly positioned limbs flank a prettily dressed young couple. The blond lad, in an American-style checked shirt, is pointing, in spirited discussion with his girlfriend. They appear as incongruous as their silent observers.

The incongruous and the absurd became hallmarks of Erwitt’s work, as did political events. In one sequence both came together, during Nelson Rockefeller’s campaigning for the Republicans in 1962. Once more taking a mutt’s eye view of humans, the first shot shows one apparently observing intently; in the next he has turned to sniff the ground; and in the third he raises a back leg. “Fair comment,” a viewer might say. Erwitt’s conclusion was, after all, that: “The whole point of taking pictures is so that you don’t have to explain things with words.”

His work appeared all over the world, including several shows at the International Center of Photography in New York, Elliott Erwitt: a one-man exhibition at the Barbican in London in 1989; and a retrospective at the Musée Maillol, Paris, earlier this year.

Erwitt married and was divorced from four wives: Lucienne Van Kan, from 1953 to 1960; Diana Dann, from 1967 to 1974; Susan Ringo, from 1977 to 1984; and Pia Frankenberg, from 1998 to 2012. He is survived by two daughters, Ellen and Jennifer, and two sons, Misha and David, from his first marriage; two daughters, Sasha and Amelia, from his third marriage; 10 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

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