Elliott Erwitt’s Take on the Magic of Photography

2 minute read

The best photographs give us a way to connect with the world: they shatter the mundane, prompt self reflection and question reality. But what about, as Ansel Adams calls it, the “twelve inches behind the camera”?

Read next: An Interview with Elliott Erwitt

TIME takes you behind the lens with First Take, a new ongoing video series about the art and craft of photography. At a time when photo sharing is the new status update, we appreciate guides such as Elliott Erwitt, Donna Ferrato and Phillip Toledano who continue to help redefine the medium. Each of them share one trait: an obsession with finding beauty in the untidiness of life.

Elliott Erwitt’s Very Own Personal Best

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

This week, the series launches with the legendary Magnum photographer Elliott Erwitt, who offers a glimpse into his quest to make art through documentary photography. A master of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment,” Erwitt says all photographers strive for that special moment that “transcends the subject and place, and can be looked at for years to come.

Here’s his take.

Elliott Erwitt is a Magnum photographer based in New York.

First Take is an ongoing video series curated by TIME’s photography editors.

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