At “Home Around the World” with Legendary Lensman Elliott Erwitt

Photo: Elliott Erwitt (American, b. France 1928), Shreveport, Louisiana, 1962. Gelatin silver print, 20.3 x 30.4 cm (image). 

“I’ll always be an amateur photographer,” legendary lensman Elliott Erwitt declared, revealing his love for the medium inherent to the person who enjoys it not as a profession, but as a practice, one that’s true reward is in and of the simple fact of action. Perhaps this is why Erwitt has become one of the greatest living photographers of our time.

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Erwitt was born in Paris in 1928 to Russian Jewish émigrés. With the rise of Hitler with the continent on the brink of war, the family moved to the United States in 1939, just in time to escape the devastation to come. Drafted into the Army in 1951, Erwitt served as a photographer’s assistant while stationed in France and Germany. Here he met no less than Edward Steichen and Robert Capa, who invited him to become a member of Magnum Photos.

Elliott Erwitt (American, b. France 1928), New York, New York, 1974. Gelatin silver print, 30.0 x 44.7 cm (image).

Decommissioned from the Army in 1953, Erwitt set up base in New York to create the greatest possible flexibility to work as a freelance photographer. Here he could practice to his heart’s content, for any day in New York promised endless possibilities. But no matter where he went, Erwitt was comfortable, able to adapt to the nuances of life on the other side of the camera. He observed, “To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about 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.”

Indeed, it is his singular vision that has stood the test of time, speaking to the casual brilliance of the photograph. In celebration, the Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin presents Elliott Erwitt: Home Around the World, now through January 1, 2017. Featuring more than 200 photographs, this is the most comprehensive examination of the artist’s work to date. The exhibition was drawn from the extensive Elliott Erwitt Photography Collection, acquired by the Ransom Center in 2015, which includes 47,500 vintage and modern black and white prints, negatives and contact sheets spanning the years 1946–2010. Aperture has also published a catalogue of Erwitt’s work by the same name.

Elliott Erwitt (American, b. France 1928), Chicago, Illinois, 1947. Gelatin silver print, 46.2 x 44.0 cm (image).

Home Around the World features highlights from Erwitt’s extraordinary career, including iconic images of Jacqueline Kennedy grieving at her husband’s funeral in 1963, photographs made on the sets of films On the Waterfront (1953), The Desperate Hours (1954), and The Misfits (1960), as well as rarely seen author portraits made in the 1950s of William Carlos Williams, Jack Kerouac, and Simone de Beauvoir, among others. The exhibition also includes a selection of contact sheets, advertisements, books, magazines, and videos representing Erwitt’s work in motion pictures.

Taken as a whole, Erwitt’s oeuvre reveals the quintessential combination of passion and discipline that creates great art, coming from the deepest depths of this true believer’s heart. “You don’t study photography, you just do it,” Erwitt declared, committing himself completely to the craft that would define his life for more than seven decades. As he sagely understood,, “If you keep your cool, you’ll get everything.”

Elliott Erwitt (American, b. France 1928), New York, New York, 1974. Gelatin silver print, 30.0 x 44.7 cm (image).

All photos: Harry Ransom Center Collection © Elliott Erwitt/Magnum Photos.

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.