Elliott Erwitt’s Very Own Personal Best

4 minute read

At 83 Elliott Erwitt is still busier than ever. He recently completed major ad campaigns for Puerto Rico’s Board of Tourism, San Pellegrino, and Lavazza. He continues to shoot tons of personal work. This year alone, he’s producing three new books.

It’s no surprise that the International Center of Photography in New York has chosen to honor Erwitt’s years of work with the esteemed Lifetime Achievement Infinity Award. Past recipients have included the likes of Lee Friedlander, William Eggleston, and former Magnum colleague Cornell Capa.

Reflecting upon the moment he found out about the award, Erwitt, in his deadpan humor, remarks, “I was very pleased of course, but I must say that I’ve had four lifetime awards in a short period of time…so I guess my life must be over pretty soon.”

Erwitt has lived in New York City since the 1950s. Born in Paris in 1928 to Russian émigrés, Erwitt grew up in Italy and France and emigrated to the United States with his family in 1939. He was drafted into the Army in 1951 and continued taking photographs for various publications. Decommissioned from military service in 1953, he was invited to join Magnum Photos as a member by its founder Robert Capa, one of Erwitt’s early mentors. Since then, he served as president of the agency for three terms. Erwitt also began making films in the 1970s. His documentaries include the classic Beauty Knows No Pain.

When asked by TIME to reflect on his favorite photographs in a post honoring his work, he initially pointed to a stack of his published books but paused.

“I hope that most of [my favorites] are not in any book and they haven’t been taken yet. But I realize that we can’t show pictures that haven’t been taken,” he said.

Erwitt prefers shooting in countries far away from his home studio. “The ideal is to be away from my studio…to be in an interesting country such as Japan, Brazil, or Ireland. These are my favorite places. And also in a place where there isn’t an internet connection because that’s a big distraction.”

How does he balance finding the time to make new personal work?

“I use a fast shutter speed.”

Out of roughly 45 books published throughout his career, we asked him to pick his very favorite.

“I suppose the book that has my favorite photographs is called Personal Best (teNeues). As the title implies, it has my better pictures. This kind of book is a compendium of my work. Its just going through my checkered career and picking stuff out that seemed to be a good picture or story or good situation and them putting it together in some kind of design-y way — that’s how you do a book. Or at least this kind of book…a retrospective.”

On stories: “There are 520 pictures here or ones that have great stories….The stories in books ought to be what you perceive in the photographs. Not what you talk about. I think talk is pretty cheap in photography and I must say that photographers do too much of it in general.

(Pause to laugh) I know you’re having a tough time with me….I think great pictures start great conversations. It’s the stuff of life, just talking with the people that are around.”

The difference between a picture and a snapshot? “There is no difference. A good picture is a good picture. I call them snaps because it’s an appropriate name and it’s something that you do quickly and them move on to the next thing. Go snap and gone…there is no difference. The only difference is between a good and bad picture, or a boring picture. A picture that engages you, that makes you think, that gives you some kind of emotion, makes you laugh or cry. That’s a good picture.”

Elliott Erwitt’s Personal Best opens at the ICP May 20, 2011 and runs though August 28, 2011.

In Erwitt's own words, reflections on his favorite photographs: "This picture here of two kids with masks was taken in Paris in 1949. I was in the army at that time and and I was on furlough in Paris. Why is it a meaningful picture to me? It's meaningful because I think it’s a good picture — no particular story in it. It’s a snapshot. In fact, most of my good pictures are snaps."Elliott Erwitt—Magnum
North Carolina, 1950. "This is probably one of my better pictures. The “White” and “Colored” drinking fountain united by one pipe, but a refrigerated one for "White" people and one messy, ugly, dirty one for “Colored” people. This was taken in North Carolina in the 1950's. It's a picture that's been used quite a lot in history books as an illustration to show graphically the myth of separate but equal, which was the mantra of the time in the South. "Elliott Erwitt—Magnum
Bratsk, Siberia, 1967. "Here we have a picture that I’m quite fond of. It was taken in Siberia at a wedding palace and shows a wedding couple and their best man. The best man seems to know something that the wedding couple are timid about. Anyway, it's a picture that’s kind of funny...it makes you think. You can supply your own judgment about what is really on the mind of these people. I give this picture to friends of mine that are either getting married or divorced."Elliott Erwitt—Magnum
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1950. "This is another favorite early photo of mine taken in Pittsburgh in 1950. Its shows a black boy with a gun to his head. Again, it’s a picture, but you can make out of it whatever you wish. I was there working for Roy Stryker, documenting Pittsburgh as it was about to experience big change. The entire point of Pittsburgh was being demolished for new buildings and Roy (who worked for the FSA) hired me, along with a lot of other photographers, to document it."
"I am an amateur photographer as well as a professional photographer. When I'm in places that are interesting, I whip out my camera and take pictures. One such place is the beach. I love to go to the beach and I love to take pictures there. It’s a wonderful situation — most of the people are exhibitionists and don’t mind being photographed if they notice you. I’ve done a number of books on beaches. This is one of my favorite pictures from Rio de Janeiro." Elliott Erwitt—Magnum
"Another place that’s fun to take pictures are nudist colonies. You might think tacky, but I don’t. I think funny. There is a thin line between tacky and funny when photographing them. These two are knitting and preparing for winter in Kent, England. British nudists are particularly amusing. I find the British totally amusing anyway, but as nudists, they are even more amusing...I’ve photographed colonies in France, Germany, and a very funny one in Bakersfield, California."Elliott Erwitt—Magnum
Provence, France, 1955. "This picture was actually done for French tourism and it's had quite a different life beyond it. It was used in many ways and has been copied many times. The guy riding the bike was my assistant and the kid looking back was his nephew — it was a set up picture." Elliott Erwitt—Magnum
"One dream assignment I had in 1964 that produced many pictures. A dream assignment because it had no brief. Any assignment that has no brief is a dream assignment and hard to come by these days. But in the early sixties, when it was very difficult to work behind the "Iron Curtain", I was hired by TIME, Inc. to do a book on Eastern Europe. In fact, those days it was wise to not be affiliated with TIME, Inc. because they were considered enemies of Eastern Europe. Anyhow, I spent a couple of months roaming Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, taking pictures of anything. This is one of the pictures. These girls and the geese in Hungary." Elliott Erwitt—Magnum
"This is my dog. I like this picture because it's at the beach and it's about a dog — the two subjects that are close to me. That's my dog, Sammy, who is blind and deaf but still here. Now he’s almost 17. He was a German dog that came with my wife but he’s lost his language and barks in English now."Elliott Erwitt—Magnum
"This is likely to be the cover of my upcoming "Sequences" book. It shows two people sunning themselves and then being blown out of their chairs by a strong wind. Its taken in Cannes, France."Elliott Erwitt—Magnum
Jackie Kennedy, Arlington, Virginia, 1963. "During the Kennedy administration, I was for a period accredited to the White House and took some pictures connected to President Kennedy. When he was assassinated, I covered the funeral along with a few thousand other people and got this rather special picture of Jackie Kennedy at the graveside." Elliott Erwitt—Magnum
"This is turning out to be one of my better pictures. It's a guy with an umberella jumping with the Eiffel Tower in the background. It’s the cover of my recently published "Paris" book. This picture was taken about 15 years ago. I don’t remember whether we had a rainstorm or if we created it. Was it for the Board of Tourism? Actually, you’d never have rain for [the Board of Tourism] unless it was in a rainforest."Elliott Erwitt—Magnum
Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali, New York, 1971. "I attended the prize fight of Frazier and Ali. I was not there on an assignment. I was there simply as a specatator and took this picture of the knockout punch at a distance, which for me is unusual because I don’t do sports. But then again if there's something in front of you and you have a camera, you do sports." Elliott Erwitt—Magnum
Fort Dix, New Jersey, 1951. "This picture of a soldier sticking his tongue at me was taken at Fort Dix during basic training. I was in the Army as well walking next to him. I always carried my camera, a Leica with a collapsible lens, so it wouldn't be too bulky in my fatigues. It’s a picture that I took then and I still like. An old picture…"Elliott Erwitt—Magnum
Nixon and Khrushchev, Moscow, 1959. "This is a picture that’s quite well known. It’s Nixon poking his finger into Khrushchev’s vest. What can I say about it? I was lucky to be there. Photography is essentially being in the right place at the right time and then crafting a good composition, then crafting everything that’s around you so that it's easily readable. I was 31 and on assignment to take pictures of Westinghouse refrigerators, nothing to do with this photograph. But as it turned out, Nixon was in the Soviet Union on a state visit, so I simply attached myself to the press corps and got lucky."Elliott Erwitt—Magnum
"I like this one sequence of three. It’s a man throwing a stick for the dog to go and get. Of course, the dog can care less. Taken in Central Park right across from where I live."Elliott Erwitt—Magnum
New York, 1988. "This is one of my daughters at the Metropolitan Museum. This is daughter number six — Amy is on the right." Elliott Erwitt—Magnum
Kent England, 1984. "The funniest situation that I had was a nudist wedding where the minister only had a white collar on. That was it."Elliott Erwitt—Magnum
Magnum photographers, Paris 1988. "These are my Magnum colleagues. The reason they are all hiding their faces is because they weren’t all there. I thought that if we all hid our faces, we wouldn't know who wasn’t there, but it turned out to be kind of a funny picture — we know exactly who’s there."Elliott Erwitt—Magnum
New York, 2000. "This popular picture of mine was taken quite recently around the corner from where I live. A dog walker and his two bull dogs. I walk my dog and so I see him often in the park."Elliott Erwitt—Magnum
"This is a nudist in Bakersfield, California, 1953. It was made during a Mister Nudist pageant. This is one of the contestants trying to influence the judges. He lost."Elliott Erwitt—Magnum
"This is my best known photo that was in the Family of Man. It shows my first wife, my first child and my first cat. I know exactly when it was taken 'cause my baby was six days old — 1953. It was in New York in my very first apartment." Elliott Erwitt—Magnum
California, 1955. "This was a picture that I didn’t know I had until 25 years after I took it...and it become a popular photo for galleries and exhibitions. It's at the end of Route 66 in Santa Monica or Pacific Palisades. It was kind of a place where you went to look at the sunset and muck about."Elliott Erwitt—Magnum

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