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Henri Cartier-Bresson created the decisive moment. I think if I were to compare Elliott Erwitt to Bresson I’d have to say that Erwitt created the decisive moment on nitrous oxide.

Elliott Erwitt is a funny guy, a photographer with a keen eye and legend at one of the greatest photo agencies ever. His career has spanned 65 years and cemented his status as one of the greatest living photographers.

I love Elliott Erwitt but I have to admit I didn’t “discover” his work until a few years ago when my husband and I happened upon some of his prints at a gallery. We were smitten by this Erwitt guy and we naively thought we’d pick up a print- until we saw the price tag. Most of Elliott’s work is owned by Magnum Photo Agency and with that comes prestige and expensive prints.

Now I see his prints all over the place. When I was in Paris last year I saw his photograph of a bereted boy on the back of a bicycle holding a baguette everywhere- I mean everywhere. Elliott has published over 40 books, been exhibited all over the world and has received lifetime achievement awards along with numerous other awards throughout his career.

When I was researching his background most articles skimmed over his early childhood. I think your childhood is such a formative time and I would be remiss if I too left it out. This is a long bio but hopefully it gives a better view of his life. There are certain points where the timeline is iffy but I tried to suss out the most accurate facts. So here goes.

Elliott Erwitt Age 5
Elliott Erwitt Age 5

Early Life

Elliott Erwitt was born Elio Romano Erwitz on July 26, 1928 in Paris to Russian-Jewish parents. Elliott’s dad was Boris Erwitz. He was an architecture student who met Elliott’s mom Eugenia while she was travelling thanks to her wealthy merchant parents. Boris and Eugenia married in Trieste in northeast Italy.

Living back in Russia, the 1917 revolution took its toll and life-long socialist Boris reluctantly agreed to leave the county- this time for good. The couple first moved to Rome before relocating to Paris where they had Elliott, their only child. They were not destined to stay in Paris for long and they soon it was back to Italy settling in Milan for the next decade.

When Elliott was four, Eugenia and Boris separated (acrimoniously according to Elliott) but they came back together again towards the end of their stay in Milan when Mussolini’s fascist regime was sweeping the country. They moved back to France only to leave for America soon after. Boris, Eugenia and Elliott were on thelast ship out of France before the government officially declared war against Nazi Germany.

Ellis Island did to 10 year-old Elio Romano Erwitz the same as they did to thousands of immigrants before him (including my great-grandfather Johan- err- George). Thus Elliott Erwitt was born.

Elliott didn’t speak English but he was fluent in Russian, French and Italian. He started school in New York City at PS 156 and he lived mostly with Boris on the upper west side only visiting Eugenia on weekends.

In 1941 when Elliott was 13, Boris decided to up sticks to California to avoid paying the now divorced Eugenia alimony. Boris hadn’t made enough money as a door-to-door salesman to fund the trip so he and Elliott had to stop in towns along the route to sell wristwatches. Once in California, Elliott enrolled at Hollywood High School while his dad continued to sell watches. There’s not much information about Eugenia at this point so I guess she remained in NYC.

His First Camera

It was at Hollywood High that Elliott became interested in photography. He saw a chrome-plated Argos camera and had to have it even though he had no idea what he was doing. He purchased it for five dollars.

 “I studied photography by reading instructions on the box of film. You don’t study photography you do it.”

rolleiflexSoon he had converted his laundry-room into a dark room (my first dark room was in my laundry room too!). The money Elliott earned from engraving Boris’ wristwatches went to buy his first “real” camera- a $200 Rolleiflex. With his newfound skills, Elliott took job at a commercial darkroom.

At age 16, Elliott started photographing weddings and reprinting photographs of celebrities with their signatures to make money. Boris left him to move to New Orleans. I read that he did this to get away from alimony laws in California, but I’m not sure if he would have been forced to pay when Eugenia was still in NYC.

Regardless, Elliott was on his own. He stayed in the house where he and his dad had been living on Fountain Avenue and he rented out his father’s room to boarders for $6 a week. He continued his studies at Los Angeles City College focusing on photography from 1944-1945. He also began making exploratory trips to New York seeing if he could get work.

Elliott was learning his trade and like most young photographers, he was experimenting with techniques. He would mimic a whirlpool washer by putting his developed film into the toilet of all places (man those must have been some crappy photos- um-err yeah I went there). He stopped doing this however when he lost one of his rolls down the loo.

In 1948 Elliott moved back to New York. Ever the hard worker, Elliott worked as a janitor in order to take film classes at the New School for Social Research (sounds like Good Elliott Hunting if you ask me).

The next year he headed back across the pond photographing his former home countries France and Italy with his Rolleiflex. Back in New York, Elliott finished his education at the New School in 1950.

His Career Begins, War & Love

Elliott did the rounds with his portfolio and one of the people he met was advertising photographer Valentino Sarra. Sarra helped Elliott get some of his first commercial jobs including Rheingold beer’s Miss Rheingold photos.

While building his contacts, Elliott met Robert Capa, Edward Steichen and Roy Stryker. Stryker had been the director of the Farm Security Administration’s photo unit and he hired Elliott to work with the Standard Oil Company on a project building a stock image library. Stryker then sent him to photograph Pittsburgh.

Robert Capa invited Elliott to join the Magnum Photo Agency but the United States government had different plans for him when he was drafted in 1951 to serve in the Korean War. Elliott was supposed to be an anti-aircraft gunner but there ended up being a surplus of guys in the regiment so Elliott was instead sent to Verdun in France to be- of all things- a photographer.

“Half of them went to Korea and got decimated,” he said. “The other half of them went to Europe and had a wonderful time, and that was me.”

PRIZE ERWITT PRIZE ERWITT 2While fulfilling his role in the military, Elliott was also taking photos for himself and doing commercial jobs as well. He won the $1,500 second prize for a Life Magazine competition with a photo essay on life in the barracks called “Bed and Boredom.”

Elliott a car with the money and named it “Thank you, Henry,” for Life Magazine’s publisher Henry Luce. He used it to travel to different countries following projects of his own. (I find it hard to believe that the army would just let a solider travel about so freely during wartime)

Back in Verdun Elliott met a Dutch girl working in the American Express office. Lucienne van Kam, known as Louie, was orphaned by the Nazis in WWII where her toes where smashed by a Nazis’ rifle and she went on to carry messages for the Dutch underground in her schoolbooks.

They fell in love and soon Louie was pregnant. They married quickly and despite strict immigration laws, Louie was granted a US visa. Once his tour was over in 1953 Elliott and Louie headed back to New York where they rented an apartment for $60 on the upper east side of Manhattan and soon their first child Ellen was born. During this time Elliott made intimate portraits of his wife and young child, soon to be children as Misha, David and Jennifer joined them.

Back in New York

Robert Capa extended his invitation again in 1953 and this time Elliott joined the Magnum Photo Agency as an associate. Elliott said it was a very informal agency at this point and it was run almost entirely by Capa. One of Elliott’s first commissions with Magnum was a photo-essay on children for Holiday magazine in Wyoming in 1954. The images he came back, including some of a cowboy walking with his young son down a dirt road, with were considered “too sad” and were never published in the magazine.

That didn’t seem to matter to the agency though because Capa offered him full membership, which he retains to this day. Unfortunately the same can’t be said of Robert Capa, who was killed that year when he stepped on a landmine while shooting in Asia. Elliott would take Capa’s mother to her son’s grave for visits and he shot one of the saddest photos of her collapsing on his tombstone.

“The agency survived as a kind of testimony to the sense of mission and energy of the remaining members, whose guiding principle was an individual humanistic view of the world through photography — and the retention of our copyright.”

 Late 50’s Early 60’s & Elliott Hits His Stride Professionally

In 1957, Elliott was sent to his parent’s native Russia where he was covering the 40th anniversary of the Russian revolution and the first launch of Sputnik for Holiday magazine. His photographs from Moscow’s planetarium garnered him the cover of the New York Times magazine. He also managed to sneak into the anniversary parade despite a ban on foreigners by convincing security he was with a Soviet TV crew that was there. After shooting a few rolls he hurried back to his hotel room where he developed the film in his bath (and luckily not the toilet).

In 1959 Elliott again returned to Russia, this time to photograph an industrial fair. He happened to be there at the same time as Vice President Richard Nixon, who was participating in a debate with Communist party chairman Nikita Khrushchev. They ended up stopping in a kitchen display set put up by Macy’s.

NixonKruschevbrochureIn the “Kitchen Debates” as they came to be known, Nixon was prodding Khrushchev in the chest and Elliott captured the image. He also thinks he heard Khrushchev saying some unsavory things to Nixon in Russian. Nixon ended up using the images in his presidential campaign.

Elliott began to photograph celebrities and was given the job as on-set photographer on several movies. Ones of these movies was The Misfits where Elliott made interesting photos of the female lead- Marilyn Monroe. He also photographed film stars Humphrey Bogart, Marlene Dietrich, Grace Kelly and director Alfred Hitchcock to name a few.

He was sent on assignment in several countries including Mexico, Japan, Pakistan and Nicaragua. This may have been around the time he and Louie called it quits. They divorced in 1960 and the children went to live with their mother. The same year a fire destroyed Elliott’s family home and he loses everything except for a few negatives.

In 1961 Elliott met Okky Offerhaus, a Dutch visual artist/model. There’s not a lot of info about them but there are a few photographs they took of each other to mark their relationship. Two years later he met Diana Dann but I don’t know if they got together then.

In 1962 Elliott travelled to Tel Aviv to photograph Jewish philosopher Martin Buber. In 1963 he photographed grieving widow Jacqueline Kennedy at her husband’s funereal in Arlington cemetery. In 1964 he spent a week photographing Fidel Castro, whom he felt very natural with, and Che Guevara. The same year he travelled to Hungary where he photographed geese and traditionally dressed girls. In 1965 he photograph Lyndon B Johnson and Pope Paul VI respectively.

screen-shot-2012-06-23-at-12-51-12-pmIn 1966 Elliott was again in Moscow for Paris Match following around President Charles de Gaulle. He bored of all the press shots being staged (I know the feeling) and left returning to his hotel room but decided to give it another shot and ended up capturing candid images of de Gaulle, President Leonid Brezhnev and prime minister Andrei Kosygin.

In 1968 Elliott photographed at his first nudist colony in Kent, England, a subject he seemed to like as he continued to cover them for years. I wonder if he took the same approach as Diane Arbus- that the photographer should be nude too to understand the subjects? That year he went again to Moscow and then to France for another nudist colony and then to Ireland.

That seemed to be a very busy year for Elliott but he stayed in one place long enough to marry Diane Dann. It was also this year that Elliott became president of Magnum, which lasted three terms.

The 70’s & Films

In 1970 Elliott travelled to Japan where he took some of the last photos of poet, playwright, actor and film director Yukio Mishima before he performed ritual suicide by seppuku after a failed coup d’état.

The 1970’s were quite a shift for Elliott who turned his focus from stills to film. Elliott was also tasked with making films for HBO.

“This was the beginning of a series of programmes for HBO, which would eventually include absurdist narratives about playing polo on elephants in Nepal, a black-tie safari in Africa and a film about hunting truffles in France.” -Guardian

In 1971 Elliott made Beauty Knows No Pain about the Kilgore College Rangerettes, a dance team from Texas. There was a lot of criticism of the film from feminists and other detractors because of the focus on physical beauty along with the demanding training the dancers received.

31DYcmBk-oL._SX940_In 1972 Elliott published his first book called Photographs and Anti-Photographs and the next year he made another documentary called Red, White and Bluegrass in Union Grove, North Carolina with performances by bluegrass musicians. 1977’s Glassmakers of Heart, Afghanistan featured a one-room glass factory ran by cousins continuing the family tradition that spanned 200 years.

In 1975 Elliott’s marriage to Diana Dann ended. While he was on assignment in San Francisco, he met Texan Susan Ringo, who became a producer and actress, and married her two years later.

Elliott made feature films, television commercials and documentaries throughout the late 70’s and into the next decade.

80’s to Present

“In the 80s, I made 18 films for Home Box Office, but when they changed the people in charge, I found it too disagreeable to work there and I went back to my day job.”

I have to add here a funny note in one of my Elliott Erwitt books- in 1981 Elliott got “busted” for speeding several times. This is apropos of nothing but Elliott wrote it himself and I thought it was pretty funny.

In 1984 Susan Ringo “ran away” and Elliott was left divorced again, this time with two more children- Amelia, born in 1981, and Sasha. This year Elliott was forced to have surgery on his spine.

In 1986 the cameras were turned and Elliott became the subject of a film called Elliott Erwitt by Design that was co-produced by German TV, BBC and PBS.

In 1988 his book Personal Exposures is published and has a retrospective exhibition the next year at the International Center of Photography in New York before it went on an international tour.

In his own biography Elliott writes about the time period from 1988-1994:

“Mostly manages to keep out of trouble. Tries to travel less with little success. Tries to be more rigourous in his work in order to waste less time. Tries not to be too repetitive in the photos he takes for pleasure. Views with consternation the cold and vulgar photography that is currently in fashion, which shuns the simple, direct approach based on the eye and the heart. Watches the insidious growth of new image manipulation techniques, which pollute the printed page with their seductiveness and bury the photography that he loves… unless it manages to grow stronger in response.”

Man alive! I love this guy.

In 1995 Elliott met novelist and filmmaker Pia Frankenberg, who went to New York from Germany to film Elliott as the “dog photographer” for German TV. Not long after she moved to New York with her son Johnny and in 1998 she married Elliott in New York’s city hall. They didn’t need to hire a wedding photographer with most of the guests being members of Magnum as it was during their annual meeting.

Black and White Film & Dogs

Throughout the rest of the 90’s and to the present day Elliott has continued to take photographs, both personally and professionally. One thing that hasn’t changed is his use of black and white film and dislike of Photoshop.

‘Everything I do in film comes out of my darkroom, under my supervision. And that’s what I’ve been doing for the last 56 years, so I’m quite familiar with it.’

The only colour image that has been included in Elliott’s recent retrospective exhibitions is from Obama’s first inauguration. Barrack and Michelle are up on stage and the foreground is a sea of mobile phone cameras up in the air. Evidently he walked in to the room and that is the only shot he took before leaving.

One theme that has run throughout his career is his love of the canine. Many of Elliott’s iconic images features dogs often infused with humour. In order to get the reaction he wanted out of the doggies he used to carry a horn in his pocket.

“I like dogs. They’re nice and they don’t ask for prints. They’re everywhere and we bark a common language. I’ve done eight books on dogs and had a dog until recently. I had him for 17 years. He went to heaven.”

Alter Ego & Whiskey

In an effort to combat pretentiousness, Elliott created a photographer alter ego named Andre S. Solidor (A.S.S). Solidor has created images often described as “kooky” contemporary photography. I think that once you done pretty much everything in your field you’ve ever wanted to do and succeeded then you have leeway to be a little kooky. Elliott Erwitt is a funny guy. This is evident from about 80 percent of his images so it’s not that far of a stretch to see him as Solidor.

One of Elliott’s recent projects was to photograph Scotland for a Whiskey company. His brief was basically to capture Scotland and he, along with his trusty Leica, travelled around photographing in pubs, breweries and even Loch Ness. As a former Scotland resident, and the wife of a Scotsman, I loved his photographs.

“All I want really is more of the same. I’d like to do more exhibits and books. And I’d like to get more advertising work. I have very expensive overheads and alimony payments. Of course I could sell up, but I really would like to keep it all going as long as I’m perpendicular. I’m not complaining. The simple fact of keeping going is a lot of fun most of the time.”


1928 – Elio Romano Erwitz was born on July 26 in Paris before moving him to Milan

1938 – Elio and his parents flee Milan, to France and then to New York where he becomes Elliott Erwitt.

1941 – Elliott and his dad Boris move to California

1941-45 – He attended Hollywood High School

1944-45 – He studied photography at Los Angeles City College

1945 – He visits New York to see if he can get work

1948 – Elliott moves back to New York where he meets Edward Steichen, Roy Stryker and Robert Capa

1948-50 – He studied film at New School for Social Research

1949 – He travels to France and Italy

1951 – Robert Capa invites Elliott to join Magnum but he is drafted into the army

1953 – Marries Lucienne (Louie) van Kam

1953 – Elliott joins Magnum as associate after leaving army

1953 – Ellen Erwitt was born

1954 – Elliott becomes full member of Magnum

1957 – Travels to Russia for the first of several trips on assignment shooting the 40th anniversary of the Russian Revolution

1959 – Again in Russia Elliott photographs the “Kitchen Debate”

1960 – Louie divorces Elliott (after having three more children between 53-60’)

1963 – He photographed grieving Jacqueline Kennedy

1964 – He travelled to Cuba to photograph Fidel Castro and Che Guevara

1965 – He photographed Lyndon B Johnson and Pope Paul VI

1966 – He photographed Charles de Gaulle back in Moscow

1968 – Elliott photographed his first nudist colony in Kent, England

1968 – Elliott married Diane Dann

1968 – He became president of Magnum

1971 – Elliott made film Beauty Knows No Pain

1972 – Elliott published his first book called Photographs and Anti-Photographs

1973 – He made another documentary called Red, White and Bluegrass

1975 – His marriage to Diane Dann ended

1977 – Elliott made film Glassmakers of Heart, Afghanistan

1977 – Married Susan Ringo

1980s – He made 18 films for HBO

1981 – His daughter Amelia was born with Susan (he had another child with her called Sasha but unsure of what year)

1984 – His marriage to Susan Ringo ended- badly

1984 – He had surgery on his spine

1986 – Elliott was the subject of a documentary called Elliott Erwitt by Design

1988 – His book Personal Exposures is published

1989 – He has a retrospective exhibition at the International Center of Photography

1995 – He falls for Pia Frankenberg

1998 – Elliott and Pia marry

2011-12 – Elliott travels to Scotland to photograph for whiskey company

2015 – Elliott awarded Outstanding Contribution to Photography prize at Sony World Photography Awards

I have put together a Pinterest board of Elliott Erwitt’s photos.

I was pleasantly surprised when Looking for Light: Jane Bown (2014) popped up on Sky Arts on demand. I had seen bits of the film when I was doing a profile on the Observer photographer Jane Bown and I really wanted to see the rest.

The documentary was filmed by the Observer’s archivist Luke Dodd and Michael Whyte before Jane’s death in December. The film weaves an in-depth view of her early life into her photographic career. But it is her sadness about her mother that underpins the narrative. Jane’s childhood was fraught with scandal as her mother had been disguised as her aunt after her affair with a rich, married man she had nursed.

The pain Jane feels about how she treated her mother after she found out is really heart breaking to watch as you can see how much she desperately regrets her actions. The filmmakers take her back to the home where she was born (on the kitchen floor) with her son Hugo.

A moving portrait of the photographer Jane Bown: her quiet determination working in an almost exclusively male world; her unique working method; how the sorrow of her early childhood informed her unique photographic style. – Rotten Tomatoes

There are interviews with her former co-workers at the Observer and with some of her photographic subjects. But the best interview is her own as she looks so fondly back on her career. She is very endearing and you can see how she must of made her subjects feel at ease.

My verdict

As much as I love the sweet lady, I have to admit this was very hard to watch. I did it in three different sittings and I just kept getting bored. There are large portions where there are slideshows of her photos with zero sound. Had the filmmakers ran her speaking over her own photographs this would have been easier to take in. Sure I get they probably wanted to have her photos do all the talking and to show her work in a minimalistic way- a way that mimics her own personality, but for me it didn’t work. It’s a shame as I think the interviews were compelling.

I think the thing I came out with is that her photographs were almost entirely overexposed (this could have been my tv but I’m not so sure) and I felt that if they weren’t of celebrities they would not have been compelling. I think the work she did best were her candids rather than her posed shots, which she is most known for. She had a great career and carved a path for more women photographers so there is no doubting her relevance.

I’d say watch the documentary if you have an interest in portraiture but don’t expect dynamic filming.


Hubble PhotoNASA rereleases Pillars of Creation in HD

An iconic photograph taken by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope in 1995 has been rereleased in high definition for the images for the telescope’s 25th anniversary. The Pillars of Creation showed “three giant columns of cold gas bathed in the scorching ultraviolet light from a cluster of young, massive stars in a small region of the Eagle Nebula, or M16.”

A Syria photo exhibition at UN headquarters called a whitewash of Syria’s war crimes

‘The U.N. representative of the opposition Syrian National Coalition demanded Wednesday that the United Nations take down a new photo exhibit sponsored by the Syrian government, saying Syria is using it to “whitewash the regime’s war crimes.”‘

Photographer finds $7000 while urban exploring

A Guy named Dave from Freaktography found $7000 in an old mattress while urban exploring a derelict house and then gave it to the former owners granddaughter.

Awesome Ansel Adams Act introduced to Congress

The Ansel Adams Act, that seeks to “restore the First Amendment Rights of Photographers,” was brought to the House of Representatives by a Republican named Steve Stockman who is currently my hero. Yes we should already have protection under the first amendment but I don’t think local, state and federal officials seem to know that.

Brownies: The sweetest camera everKodak_Brownie_Flash_III

BBC Magazine does a feature on the Kodak Brownie and its roll in the lives of normal people who the camera was eventually aimed at. This article makes me want to jump on eBay and find an old one as the only ones I have (sadly in my storage unit in Florida) are the later models.

Ultra Orthodox Jewish newspaper (badly) photoshops out Angela Merkel and the female mayor of Paris

I think this quote from the NYT article says it all: “It is rather embarrassing when, at a time that the Western world is rallying against manifestations of religious extremism, our extremists manage to take the stage.” To save women’s “modesty,” a word I would hesitate to apply to Angela Merkel, the paper photoshopped out these powerful women. I find this appalling to whitewash (or more appropriately malewash) a scene from what will be a historic moment in time. Come on now.