Lucienne, the photographer's wife, looks at their six-day-old daughter Ellen in New York in 1953.Elliott Erwitt/Magnum Photos
Without going as sarcastic as Martin Parr and his popular scenes of mass tourism, the American photographer Elliot Erwitt captured everyday humour and absurdity with irony, but also emotion and love, regardless of whether they were perennial or fleeting. Heir to the best school in black and white, that roots that come from Herbert List and that in the eighties crowned an entire generation (Irving Penn, Helmut Newton, Richard Avedon, Erwitt himself), defined the way of capturing a world in movement, which is why his images seem in some cases to be in flutter. Erwitt stood out especially when portraying children and dogs, especially restless beings and creatures that, as Hitchcock recommended in his day – and later Bertolucci repeated – it is best to keep away from the cameras.
"The beauty of photography is in its ability to stop time," he said. His time ran out on Wednesday, at the age of 95, at his Manhattan home, surrounded by his family. His death was announced by the Magnum agency, to which he belonged for more than six decades, eventually directing it in the <>s. A renowned photojournalist, but also a commercial photographer, he also said something that perfectly describes his work: "For a photograph to be good, it must have balance, form and substance. But to be very good, it must also have an indefinable magic." Almost all of his snapshots bear the imprint of transience. Because Elliot Erwitt perfected what his teacher, Henri Cartier-Bresson, considered the key to good photography, the "decisive moment", the right moment, even without ever knowing that the result would live up to expectations. The finger is ready on the shutter to perceive the extraordinary in the ordinary and fix forever that thousandth of a second.
A staunch defender of black-and-white film well into the era of digital photography, always armed with his Rolleiflex and Leica, Erwitt combined a dual career as a journalist and as an artist. He began collaborating in the 1950s with Magnum, the photojournalism agency founded by Cartier-Bresson and another mentor, Robert Capa, as well as with popular magazines of the time, such as Life, Newsweek, Collier's and Look. The country fresh from the war, given over to optimism to the point of patenting the American way of life, marched ahead of its commercial objective, the one that allowed it to live and pay the bills. But I always brought another camera to the sessions, the artist's. He called his first job "creative obedience", a task that he fulfilled with a profession in order to develop his artistic drive. That duality fed off each other until his consecration as a photographer allowed him to opt for creation, not just the recreation of what he saw.
"Elliott has pulled off a miracle," Cartier-Bresson told the Guardian in 2003, "working [at the same time] on commercial campaigns and offering a bouquet of stolen photos [from those same shoots] with a special flavor, a smile from his deepest self."
Fascinated by dogs, but also the author of a wonderful portrait of a woman with a cat (Lucienne and cat, 1953), he portrayed them in unlikely scenarios, often supplanting the humours of humans: perplexed, inquisitive, melancholic, cantankerous, insolent dogs. One of them strolls along the beach of Deauville in the off-season as an allegory of solitude; another looks nonchalantly at the photographer from the driver's seat of a Renault on a Paris street. Because Erwitt was one of the greats of American photography, but he also immortalized the Paris of clichés: the French boy in a beret, on a bicycle, between his father and two baguettes. Or the graceful pirouette of a man with an umbrella silhouetted against the background of the Eiffel Tower while a couple kisses. Kisses, like children and dogs, were constant motifs in his work. He dedicated three monographic books to canids: Son of Bitch, To the Dogs and Woof, the English onomatopoeia for barking.
The Artist Who Consecrated the Charisma of Castro and Che
To define Elliot Erwitt as a photojournalist with a double artistic life would be to limit the greatness of his work. Frank Sinatra, Muhammad Ali and Simone de Beauvoir passed in front of his camera. His 1964 portraits of Cuban leader Fidel Castro and icon Che Guevara strutting through the streets of Havana definitively consecrated their charisma. "Fidel Castro was very photogenic, a kind of cowboy," he said later. "An interesting person, obviously, and very talkative. It was extraordinary to bring them together in the same room. They were willing to let themselves be photographed, it was quite easy. It's much easier to photograph the stars than not to."
Of other, more mundane stars, he also showed the lesser-known side. Marilyn Monroe was taken off the Hollywood pedestal to show her simply as the diligent student of a screenplay; Jacqueline Kennedy, clamorously alone in the crowd after her husband's funeral, with the folded coffin flag in her hands. Erwitt was the official White House photographer during the presidency of the Democrat assassinated in Dallas 60 years ago.
Although he traveled halfway around the world, including Nikita Khrushchev's Soviet Union, Erwitt's creative universe began and ended at home. One of his most celebrated photos, a grainy chiaroscuro from 1953, shows his wife, Lucienne, staring rapturously at Ellen, their six-day-old baby, asleep in bed, while a cat watches over the creature's feet (a variation on the aforementioned Lucienne and cat). The author himself defined it simply as "a family photo of my first child, my first wife and my cat," but it became one of the best sellers of his career, so much so that "it allowed several of my children to go to college," he said in an interview. His daughter Shasha was in charge of communicating this Wednesday that her father had definitively stopped time, something he pursued all his life with the camera.