Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Photographers You Should Know: Elliott Erwitt

Elliott Erwitt: Mother and Baby with Cat
New York, 1953. Erwitt's first wife with their first child.

The Best Photographer of the 20th Century
I consider Elliott Erwitt to have been the best photographer of the 20th century. I did not say "greatest," because he was not a seminal photographer. He did not found any major movement in photography, as did Kertesz, Steiglitz, Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, and maybe a few others. But he  worked in many different genres -- advertising, architecture, reportage, film -- and was the best or among the best at everything he did. As a commercial photographer, he was a consummate professional, good enough to own a spacious condominium in one of the stately, old apartment buildings on the West Side of New York's Central Park.

However, the area in which he excelled all others was in the genre we often call "Decisive Moment" photography. (Cartier-Bresson, by the way, did not invent the genre, although the phrase was coined for his first book. He actually built on the work of Steiglitz and Kertesz.) 

In this work of observation and documentation of human (and often, dog) nature, juxtapositions, incongruities, absurdities -- combined with razor sharp reflexes and technical skill, Erwitt is simply the best. He can size up a complex situation and make a striking photograph in an instant. And no one else comes close to producing the volume (I should say "volumes") of incisive photographs Erwitt spins out, seemingly effortlessly. 

Sometimes Erwitt's wit is very subtle,
and sometimes it's like a slap in the face.

There are others who do this work very, very well -- my favorites among them are Robert Doisneau and B.A."Tony" King, who have each produced many photographs as good as Erwitt's -- but Erwitt produces great photographs in phenomenal volume. He could walk around the block -- just about any block -- and come back with more good photographs than I could produce in a year.

Erwitt is 91 years old, as of this writing, and for the past several years has been going through his contact sheets, finding more gems, and publishing more books. Many of them are now available on the used market at reduced prices. They are all worth having. I especially recommend Personal Exposures, a large volume filled with many of his best-known photographs.

I had a large collection of Erwitt's books, but since we're downsizing and preparing to move into a smaller home I've had to sell most of them. I'm keeping Private Experience, from the Peterson Masters of Contemporary Photography series. Private Experience is not a large book and was published more than 40 years ago, but I have not found a better overview of his life and work. It's the one book I won't part with. I'm fortunate to have a copy in hard cover. Used, softcover copies are readily available for under $5 at and

I think the photograph of Erwitt's first wife and baby with the cat is one of the most beautiful photographs ever made.

Photographs © Copyright Elliott Erwitt 1953-2020
Soli Deo Gloria