October 19, 2018

MASTER OF THE UNGUARDED MOMENT

PDNB Gallery celebrates a photography legend’s 90th birthday

Advertising and documentary photographer Elliott Erwitt has created so many iconic images over his 70-plus-year career, it’s no wonder he’s considered one of the last living masters of what photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson termed the “decisive moment.”   

And—quite frankly—we wouldn’t have today’s proliferation of street snappers without Erwitt’s influence. A member of the Magnum photo agency since 1953, Erwitt still uses the same non-digital methodology he did from the beginning of his career, waiting until the development process to decide if what he captured is worthy.  

“I like to think I don’t have preconceptions, and everything has the possibility of being interesting,” says the 90-year-old photographer on a call from his home in East Hampton, New York. “Luckily, in my later years, I’ve had the luxury of choosing my subjects and I’m not doing too much of my commercial work.” 

“Havana, Cuba, 1964 (Che Guevara)”

Born in Paris and raised in Italy and Southern California, Erwitt began his future career as a 15-year-old printing glossies of movie stars in a local darkroom. After studying photography and filmmaking at Los Angeles City College and the New School for Social Research, Erwitt was drafted into the army in 1951, honing his craft by photo assisting in France and Germany.  

After his service, a fortuitous meeting with legendary photographer and Museum of Modern Art curator Edward Steichen led to commercial gigs shooting for the likes of Look and Life. Erwitt also served as the camera operator for the Rolling Stones’ film Gimme Shelter and created numerous commercials and documentaries.   

Throughout his career, Erwitt has trafficked in the funny, the historical, and the profound. And he clearly loves whatever—or whoever—is in his Leica lens, from a chihuahua in a winter sweater to Marilyn Monroe to Cuban revolutionaries Che Guevara and Fidel Castro.   

“I’m not serious about being serious,” says Erwitt of his democratic approach. “My colleagues and photographers, in general, are rather serious about what they do. They have to invest photography with gravitas, but since I think photography is so simple, I don’t.”

“There’s no difference from my point of view in taking pictures of famous people or politicians or actors or actresses. Sometimes you hit it, sometimes you don’t—it’s like playing roulette.”  

Celebrating Erwitt’s 90th birthday, Photographs Do Not Bend’s second solo exhibition for the photographer gathers together some of the most significant pictures in his career, which is still running full throttle with international shows and a recent book, Home Around the World, published by the Harry Ransom Center in Austin (the Center also acquired Erwitt’s archives in 2015).  

“They’re well-funded, and they’re not going to go belly up real soon,” he jokes of the institution.  

Although Erwitt isn’t attending his Texas show, the nonagenarian keeps a surprisingly hectic schedule, with shows slated at galleries in Europe and the Far East and a monograph, Elliott Erwitt’s Scotland, released last month.  

“I’m mostly concerned now with books and exhibitions; that’s what occupies me,” Erwitt says. “I just keep busy and take some pictures. Photography is my hobby as well as my occupation.” —Kendall Morgan

The Details: PDNB Gallery, 154 Glass Street, Suite 104. “Elliott Erwitt” through November 10. Gallery talk by co-director Missy Finger and film screening of the short documentary “Elliott Erwitt: I Bark at Dogs” by Douglas Sloan. Saturday, October 27 at 2 p.m.