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Elliot Erwitt: A Subtle Oddness
Elliot Erwitt
Personal Best
 by Elliot Erwitt. Source: icp.org
Elliot Erwitt, New York, 1974

Like Cartier-Bresson, Elliot Erwitt smiles on the world; but there is more irony in that smile, more interest in the strangeness of life, and its intrinsic, subtle oddness. Yet contrasted with the magnificent Cartier-Bresson retrospective last year, the new Elliot Erwitt show at ICP disappoints.

And like other Magnum photographers of his generation, Erwitt was always in Cartier-Bresson’s shadow. In fact, so many of his pictures might have been taken by one of his colleagues, he could easily be seen as the generic Magnum photographer. For apart from a few well-known images, his reportage work, though occasionally brilliant, is basically standard.

Only when his sense of the ironic and the surreal come into play do we see a unique sensibility. His career throws the whole question of photographic sensibility into high relief, underscoring the importance of going beyond a common mastery of means, which, almost inescapably, includes the acquisition of common conventions, to truly make one’s mark. Although Elliot certainly did not find everything funny, as his moving picture of Jacqueline Kennedy holding the flag at her husband’s funeral attests, it is his ability to see comic and quizzical contrasts that sets him apart.

 by Elliot Erwitt. Source: icp.org
Elliot Erwitt, Jacqueline Kennedy at John F. Kennedy’s funeral,1963

There are, of course, shared sensibilities in photography as elsewhere, but it is the subtle emphases that differentiate one from another. Kertesz, for example, also had a great eye for juxtapositions, but his are less witty and more poetic– they go deeper than Erwitt’s, somehow– yet rarely do they make us laugh.

Wit is not an especially common commodity in photography, although goofiness is, if thousands of just plain silly Hallmark cards are any proof. Perhaps the medium’s foremost exponent of visual wit, Erwitt has delivered a lifetime’s worth of sly, sophisticated and surprising images.

And there he has few rivals. For he is a master of the absurd. Take the comical juxtaposition of an over-dressed Chihuahua, his booted owner, and a naked Great Dane. You look at the ridiculous expression on that little dog’s face and you have to laugh. (Erwitt is the world’s greatest dog photographer, odd and unflattering as this may sound.)

In Personal Best we catch the faint whiff of personal vanity; for this is really not Erwitt’s “best” work, merely his favorite. Better work exists than is seen here, where so many images are oversized and mediocre. Considering the wealth of material his long career offers, that is a shame.

But there is wonderful work here, too. Such as the image of two poorly clad black children watching a little white girl dressed to her frilly gills, or the grim faced middle aged lady facing a grim faced wooden cowboy, or that of the little girl lined up alongside Egyptian statues. So, certainly, the exhibition is worth a visit.

Most importantly, in Personal Best we get to see the solid, steady output of a working photojournalist performing at a consistently high level image after image, giving us a chance to celebrate the power of his looking.

Elliot Erwitt
Personal Best


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The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino
Making Caribbean Dance by Susanna Sloat
Central Booking Magazine
Soho Photo Gallery