Nov 102011

Respect Your Elders

We spend hours with our cameras.

When we are not shooting, we 

pour over images, edit, learn 

and fumble our way to the 

next body of work.  Maintaining

perspective can be a challenge.

Why not put the senior 

photographers to work for us?


This was one of the first images that Elliot sold to a magazine. He loves photographing dogs. They don't complain, they do not require releases, and they are great models. New York City, USA 1946 Elliot Erwitt

Lessons from a Hobbyist

For as long as I can remember, Elliot Erwitt refered to his photography a hobby.  I think every hobbyist would be pleased with Elliot’s level of success.  In interviews he downplays his role as a member of Magnum Photo, commercial photographer and a recipient of the International Center for Photography’s Infinity Prize.  But under the surface of his charming stories are useful lessons that we can use to gain perspective on our work.

1953 Elliot Erwitt

Don’t Take Things Too Seriously

Your best picture might be waiting at home.  Elliot snapped a few pictures of his new new born daughter and wife at home in New York.  For everyone who has a child, this is a picture you can take.  He found an interesting angle on his first child, his third cat, and his first wife.

Taken from a slightly different angle, this picture never carried the same punch as the one above. 1953 Elliot Erwitt

Move around the room

Elliot said in his ICP lecture that there were no other images like the one above on the contact sheet.  I assume it was a different roll of film, but the scene is the same.  The components are identical: baby, cat, & wife.  But I think everyone will agree the picture above is more successful.  The lesson in the story, we need to move our feet.  The difference between a good picture and a great picture can be a few steps to the right.  Don’t forget to bend your knees.

Elliot's child in manufacturing. 1977 Elliot Erwitt

A few months later. 1977 Elliot Erwitt

Things take time

Its hard to forget that a portfolio like Elliot’s takes decades to develop.  When the moderator at ICP said Elliot had photographed for over 40 years, Elliot figured its been a lot longer than that.  He said he was on his own from 15-1/2 years old.  He has been photographing ever since.   Not to embarrass Elliot I will just say he was born in 1928.  Be patient with your body of work.  If you can take five amazing pictures a year you are in great shape.

A group of men at the Prato, in Madrid, debating the artistic merit of Goya's brush stroke...sure they are! 1995 Elliot Erwitt

Men like naked women

Comedians and photographers make their careers by showing us things we already know.  Men like naked women.  This is not a new idea.  Its an embarrassingly simple equation.  A naked women will stop an army of men dead in their tracks or a pack of museum goers.  Now I am sure these guys are debating the artistic merit of Goya’s painting…but more likely they just prefer boobs.

Elliot took this picture during basic training at Fort Dix New Jersey. 1951 Elliot Erwitt

Take pictures at work

Elliot took this picture while he was in basic training in the US Army.  Fatigues have big pockets and Leica’s are small cameras.  Its a winning combination.  Don’t wait for a magazine, client, or collector to commission work.  Take pictures of your life because you know it better than anyone else.  Years later, it may be featured at ICP.

Nude students, clothed model. East Hampton New York, 1983 Elliot Erwitt

Reverse the expected

Nude students, clothed model…did someone get this backwards?  In the famous words of Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka,”So much time and so little to do, wait, strike that reverse it.”  Take pictures that test if your audience is paying attention.

Brighton England 1966 Elliot Erwitt

KISS: Keep it simple student

The acronym is repeated by coaches all across the United States.  We need to master simplicity if we ever hope to create dynamic images.  Consider images like the one above a haiku practice.  Keep it short, simple and interesting.

Sure it looks like a French photograph, but its just Elliot's assistant and his son on the bike. An economic use of resources.Provence, France 1955 Elliot Erwitt

Use your friends

When Elliot took this picture for a travel campaign on France he needed a frenchman.  The only problem was he did not have a frenchman.  Instead he used his assistant and his assistants son.  This image is now an iconic image of the French countryside with its quiet road, baguette, berets, and bicycle.  The entire picture is contrived, but we can assume Elliot had a clear vision of a picture and brought together the necessary elements to make it happen.  Don’t kill yourself for not having a huge production budget.  Very often big budgets kill creativity.

Elliot snapped this image while visiting a friend in North Carolina. It was not part of a larger campaign for Civil Rights. It was a good observation, clean and simple. 1950 Elliot Erwitt

Don’t swing for home-runs

Not every picture needs to be a masterpiece.  How many times have you left the house and thought, “I want to take a really great picture, maybe it will be today.”  Eight hours later you come home with a handful of mediocre shots.  Why does this happen?

A Zen monk would tell you, the second you pick a target you have already missed.  Elliot took this famous picture of the water fountains while visiting a friend.  I always thought it was for a brief stint covering the Civil Rights Movement.  Hardly…he happened to see the picture, thought it was very sad and took the photo.  That is the nice thing about photography. Once you can see the important elements, you simply go “click.”  The rest is history.

Casanova Guevara in Havana, Cuba 1964 Elliot Erwitt

Famous Revolutionaries

If you have to take a seated portrait, use a famous revolutionary as a model.  They tend to be photogenic badasses with a seductive quality that you would not trust your wife around.  Che and Fidel have posed for nearly half of the Magnum office.  Even if the picture is mediocre its still going to have some punch.  Turns out if you take a good picture of an icon it will be doubly famous.  See Elliot’s images of Marilyn or Jackie Kennedy.

This image was buried in a contact sheet for almost ten years, before Elliot discovered it again. California, USA 1955 Elliot Erwitt

Use old contacts

Elliot found this image almost ten years after it was taken.  He is constantly searching through old contact sheets.  To his surprise, he discovers new images all the time.  Our tastes change over time.  What we used to think was a bad picture might be a masterpiece in hiding.  So don’t throw out those old contacts.

Look for images at the cross roads of technology. Eventually they will both look outdated. Wyoming, USA 1954 Elliot Erwitt

Be sensitive to change

Its not always easy to see the world as it changes around us.  Each generation is given a new bunch of gadgets for everyday life.  The photographer is given the task of finding images that show how two technologies lived side by side for a brief period of time.  Just think, “Can I photograph the caveman and the dinosaur together?”  Eventually the dinosaur will be gone.

Remember to photograph things you enjoy. It makes getting up and going to work much easier. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, USA 1988 Elliot Erwitt

Photograph things you like

Elliot likes to visit museums.  He enjoys art and people, museums have both.  There is no need to invent impossible projects for yourself.  Artists, aside from being creative, are  practical.  They tend to make work which is easy for them to encounter.  If you don’t like to travel, designing a cross country trip might not be a good idea.  Likewise, if you spend three weeks out of a month traveling, shooting a time lapse project at home is not going to work.  Make life easier for yourself.  Learn from Elliot, if you like going to art museums bring a camera.  It might become a book one day.


To listen to Elliot Erwitt’s lecture at ICP click on the link below.  Its a great narration of his photographs, with a touch of Erwitt charm.

Elliot Erwitt @ ICP Lecture Series

  One Response to “Elliot Erwitt at ICP”

  1. Elliott Erwitt would be proud of this article :) Keep up the great articles Adam…

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