Friday, April 17, 2020

Photographers You Should Know: The Wisdom of Elliott Erwitt

(Blog Note: For some reason Google has decided to block my use of some of Erwitt's photographs, even though I posted them under fair use rules and with proper attribution and copyright notice. Sorry.)

Elliott Erwitt has a reputation as a man of few words. Yet, over the years he has amassed a formidable array of quotable quotes about photography. Let's listen to the man himself:

The Essence of Photography

"To me, photography is an art of observation. It's about finding something interesting in an ordinary place... I've found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them. . . it's about creating something extraordinary out of the ordinary. You choose a frame and then wait until the right time for something magical to come along and fill it. . . Most photographers work best alone, myself included.

"I like things that have to do with what is real, elegant, well presented and without excessive style. In other words, just fine observation. . . I appreciate simplicity, true beauty that lasts over time, and a little wit and eclecticism that make life more fun.

"Good photography is. . .just about seeing. You either see or you don't see. The rest is academic. Photography is simply a function of noticing things. Nothing more. . .All the technique in the world doesn't compensate for the inability to notice. . . You can find pictures anywhere. It's simply a matter of noticing things and organizing them. . . Photography is pretty simple stuff. You just react to what you see, and take many, many pictures.. . . Nothing happens when you sit at home. I always make it a point to carry a camera with me at all times...I just shoot at what interests me at that moment. . . The best things happen when you just happen to be somewhere with a camera."

On Learning Photography

"You don't study photography, you just do it. . . Photography is a craft. Anyone can learn a craft with normal intelligence and application. To take it beyond the craft is something else. That's when magic comes in. And I don't know that there's any explanation for that. . . It's just seeing - at least the photography I care about. You either see or you don't see. The rest is academic. Anyone can learn how to develop. It's how you organize what you see into a picture.

"Balance of light is the problem, not the amount. Balance between shadows and highlights determines where the emphasis goes in the picture...make sure the major light in a picture falls at right angles to the camera.

"There's no great mystique to photography. A lot of photographers like to put their hands up to their forehead and tell you how they've suffered and so forth. Well, I just rent a car and drive to the place and take the pictures. . .The main thing is to study pictures and stop listening to the pontifications of photographers. Photographers aren't oracles of wisdom. If they're good photographers, then take a good look at their pictures - what else do you need? 

"A picture should be looked at - not talked about. . .My 'work' is about seeing not about ideas. . .The whole point of taking pictures is so that you don't have to explain things with words. . . I am serious about not being serious."

On Professionalism

"I am a professional photographer by trade and an amateur photographer by vocation. . . Working myself into a position of total versatility, so that I can do anything I want to do at the time I want to do it. Whether I do it or not is another question.

"As a professional photographer I take photographs for other people to see - but I want them to see what I see. So I never assume that only a few people will appreciate what I do. At all times, the public should be able to understand what I've done, even if they don't understand how I've done it.. . Do what the client wants, not what you want.

"Somehow Photoshop and the ease with which one can produce an image has degraded the quality of photography in general. . .electronic manipulation of pictures. I think it's an abomination. I reject it all. I mean, it's OK for selling corn flakes or automobiles or for taking pimples out of Elizabeth Taylor's face, but it undermines the thing that photography is about, which is about observation and not about manipulation of images."

(All photographs Copyright 1953-2020 Elliott Erwitt.)

Blog Note: Since Mr. Erwitt's statements were made at various times during his long career, I have taken the liberty of arranging them into sequences by subject.

Soli Deo Gloria 


  1. Emily Dickinson defined poetry as "distilling amazing sense from ordinary meanings."

  2. Erwitt has always been one of my inspiration photographers!

  3. Apparently has decided to block my use of some of Erwitt's photographs, which I did under fair use rules and with appropriate attribution and copyright notice.

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