Lessons I’ve learnt from photographer Elliott Erwitt
“When I get up in the morning I brush my teeth and go about my business, and if I’m going anywhere interesting I take my camera along.” Elliott Erwitt
Elliott Erwitt is one of my favourite photographers. Even though our style is totally different I really feel like I get him – his style, his approach, his humour.
And if you’ve never heard of him, I guarantee that you will recognise some of his photos.
One thing I love about him is how unpretentious he is as a person. He is crazily prolific, has won a bundle of awards, published over fifty books and received accolades from a young age. And yet when he talks about his achievements he is super modest and quite disdainful of the hoopla around photography. He describes taking photos as “just composing all the parts in a rectangle.”
“There isn’t much to learn about photography, everything you need to know you can find out by reading the instructions in the box. The rest is practise.”
Right, OK then 🙂
If I try to nail down why Erwitt is a stunning photographer I think it’s because he is able to recognise a few incredible elements in a scene and react quickly. So here’s some thoughts on what we can learn from this fascinating photographer.
The decisive moment
Erwitt was inspired to get into photography when he saw this photo by Henri Cartier Bresson:
The Quai St Bernard, near the Gare d’Austerlitz railway station, Paris 1932. Henri Cartier-Bresson
He said of it – “The picture seemed evocative and emotional. Also, a simple observation was all that it took to produce it. I thought, if one could make a living out of doing such pictures, that would be desirable.”
Cartier-Bresson developed the concept of the decisive moment, and Erwitt is definitely a master of this concept. I think of the decisive moment as capturing a moment of life that tells us something about what it is to be human. Wikipedia says it’s:
“The decisive moment refers to capturing an event that is ephemeral and spontaneous, where the image represents the essence of the event itself.”
Let the drama of life just play out
Erwitt is particularly well known for these types of images, where he has seen something absurd or funny and been super quick to capture it in the decisive moment.
And this leads to a lightness to him that I really love. He is not going out with a bunch of preconceptions. He is just looking and that is tough for a lot of people. For some it comes naturally and for others it is something you have to develop. When people ask me what I was thinking when I took a photo, usually it’s nothing. That’s really the point – I wasn’t thinking at all. The thinking part of my brain seems to go silent, or dark, or I don’t know – switches off? Henri Cartier Bresson says:
“Photography is not documentary, but intuition, a poetic experience. It’s drowning yourself, dissolving yourself, and then sniff, sniff, sniff – being sensitive to coincidence. You can’t go looking for it; you can’t want it, or you won’t get it. First you must lose yourself. Then it happens.”
I think you see that in abundance in Erwitt’s photos. And I suppose it’s what we call ‘being present in the moment’ nowadays. This is something that I’ve always had, but I know people who have developed this ability (my wife! Miss never-stops-thinking) and so if you don’t have it, it’s fine. You brain has the ability to develop this skill – and you probably did have it once, as a child, so with training it can return!
Don’t take yourself so seriously
“I’m not a serious photographer like many of my contemporaries. That is to say, I am serious about not being serious.” Elliott Erwitt
A few years ago Erwitt created an alter-ego photographer, Andre S. Solidor who creates arty and pretentious images. He did it to “satirise the kooky excesses of contemporary photography” and “the art world”.
“I’ve always been a little suspicious of the art world anyway. I always thought that a lot of the art is simply what you can get away with.”
It’s a brilliant idea. I mean, isn’t there enough serious things in the world that need your serious attention? We don’t need to drag photos of landscapes or dogs or people going about their day on a Saturday afternoon into seriousness do we?
Wait long enough and you’ll take a good photo
“The ratio of successful shots is one in God-knows-how-many. Sometimes you’ll get several in one contact sheet, and sometimes it’s none for days. But as long as you go on taking pictures, you’re likely to get a good one at some point.” Erwitt
With my students one thing I see a lot of is impatience. People expect to go out for a few hours and automatically get a few good shots. Well inspiration / creativity / the weird universe doesn’t work like that. Sometimes I can go out day after day after day and get one or two shots, or nothing! Then bang, one day I get ten amazing, portfolio-worthy shots.
“Photography is pretty simple stuff. You just react to what you see, and take many, many picutres.” Erwitt
Just stick at it, is the main point.
People will tell you who they are
This is a crazy simple photo right, but the expressions are amazing. How many stories can you tell yourself about what’s going on here? It’s truly breathtaking what you see when you just look around and see how people expose their inner selves thousands of times a day – and tell you exactly what’s going on in their minds. You just have to be waiting around long enough, or watching close enough, to see.
Loose the theory
Elliott says “My ‘work’ is about seeing not about ideas.” But I see plenty of ideas in his work. It’s the idea of being human that maybe he captures. And the idea of being human is definitely interesting and never ending in its possibilities.
“You just have to care about what’s around you and have a concern with humanity and the human comedy.” Elliott Erwitt
Part of me wonders if he just waited for this shot, knowing that something like this might happen. But then I think no, I think his eye is so finely tuned for the extraordinary that he just saw this moment and got it. I think what brings the funniness of the photo to a pinnacle, almost like the cherry on the ice cream, is that the man who is almost in the centre of the frame wears a long mac. It’s like so many stereotypes all wrapped up in one photo.
Passion never gets old
Erwitt is extremely prolific and he’s done over eighty books, countless exhibitions and shot hundreds of commercial shoots. But he’s also done eight books about dogs. Amazing right? Doesn’t that inspire you to shoot what you love? Who cares if you’ve shot it a thousands times before. There is always something new to see and to say on a subject. Passion never gets old.
Asked why he shoots dogs he said: “It’s simple. I like dogs. They’re nice and they don’t ask for prints. They’re everywhere and we bark a common language.”
Asked why he shoots black and white – “It looks better. I have more control and everything is out of my darkroom. I work with a printer and supervise everything…When I take pictures for my own amusement, it’s black and white….for professional work, I don’t care.”
I don’t shoot black and white, and never have really because I really love colour. And when I was starting out, and still even now a bit, photography as ‘art’ was rarely in colour. Most masters were black and white. It took courage for me to go my own way with colour. Erwitt demonstrates courage in abundance. He shoots what he loves, in the way that he loves to and that’s it!
He’s a pragmatist (like me) and that’s OK
“How can I describe a picture? You look through your stuff, you find some good pictures, you print them. What’s there to describe?” Elliott Erwitt
My wife is always telling me that I am really pragmatic. And you know what – I don’t think pragmatism is very common in artists. Maybe it’s more common in photographers, but generally artists tend to be more idealistic types.
Maybe being a ‘pragmatic’ is why I feel weird when I am asked to describe my work and I don’t have that arty language falling off my tongue. I get really uncomfortable when people ask me what my photos are about. I want to say: this photo of a tree is about, well the tree? It’s a great looking tree, who wouldn’t want to take a photo of it? Which seems to be a disappointing reaction for people. People seem to want artists to have something really intense and profound to say about their work. But I like what Erwitt says about that – “The whole point of taking pictures is so that you don’t have to explain things with words.”
And so I love that here is this great photographer whose work is definitely art, and he’s showing us all that you can be a really pragmatic person and yet still insanely creative. He’s taught me that being pragmatic is totally cool. It’s who I am.
Two of my favourite photos from a photographer taking photographs of their family come from Erwitt. First is this very beautiful photo of his wife (his first, there have been others) and his daughter who was six days old. The two things are great about this photo: the incredible expression the mother has, which personifies the love of a mother doesn’t it? And the light falling across the baby and onto the mother’s cheek. See how these two stand out elements make the photo.
This is another reality-of-motherhood photo – right? Especially the holding of the kid on the hip. I’ve seen my wife be this amazing many times.
So with that I’m going to go back to my holiday hide-away. I’m going to think some more about Erwitt and other photographers I love, do some more reading and watching movies, and get myself juiced up for a big creative year.
I’d love to know – what do you think of Erwitt’s photos? Please comment on my blog – or reply to this email. I love reading what you all have to say.
Please share this post with photo-loving friends if you like it, sharing is much much appreciated it.
Anthony & Diana
Some extra resources
- Interview with Erwitt by his son Misha for the New York Times.
- This is a funny 4 minute video interview with Erwitt.
- Erwitt has been a member of Magnum since the early days, here is his page on the Magnum.
- This is a great longer video interview with Erwitt from the Visions and Images series. Very funny. Asked how he got to show his work to the curator at the Museum of Modern Art he said, ‘I got the bus’.
- This article is not about Erwitt but about how the decisive moment works in the human brain. Really interesting.
The early-bird prices for my workshops (up to 30% off the regular prices) ends in two days! I won’t be repeating this so if you want to join me on an incredable, creative, amazing photo adventure next year – now is the time to book. I guarantee it will be one of the best things you’ll do ALL YEAR. Venice, Istanbul, London ….. they’re waiting for you 🙂
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