Elliott Erwitt

A Wry Eye: An Interview with Elliott Erwitt

By Janis Bultman

Published in Darkroom Photography, January 1985 and in Legacies: Interviews with Masters of Photography from Darkroom Photography Magazine, 2018.
Elliott Erwitt
Elliott Erwitt. Photo by Rene de Carufel.

Photography is Elliott Erwitt’s business. It’s also his hobby. For over thirty years, Erwitt has been a highly successful photojournalist, commercial photographer, and lately, filmmaker. In between—and sometimes during—assignments, he takes black-and-white snapshots that reveal, among other things, a healthy and complex sense of humor. His images have been collected in several books—Photographs and Anti-Photographs Recent Developments, and the well-known Son of Bitch. He’s gathering beach snaps for his next book. He threatens to call it Son of Beach.

Born in Paris in 1928, Erwitt moved with his family to Italy, back to Paris, and then to the United States, finally settling in Los Angeles. By the age of sixteen, he was a professional photographer. After moving to New York, he made the customary rounds, and with help from Roy Stryker, Edward Steichen, and others, found employment. Robert Capa took him into Magnum’s fold in 1953. Later, as Magnum’s president, Erwitt led the crusade for photographers to retain copyright to their work.

JB: Have you always distinguished between your personal and your commercial photography?

EE: Always. One is my hobby and the other is what I do for money. That’s the only distinction. It doesn’t mean that one is better or worse than the other. Or unworthy. It’s just that I would not normally get up in the morning and say, “Well, today I think I’ll go photograph a factory.” However, if somebody pays me to do it, I will cheerfully get up and go photograph the factory. That’s the distinction.

JB: Why do you do your personal work only in black-and-white?

EE: I just don’t like color. It makes a great deal of sense to shoot motion pictures or commercial assignments in color because there you’re after information. In my personal photography, I’m not interested in information. I’m interested in observation. You can abstract things in black-and-white in a way that you cannot in color. Frankly, black-and-white is far more difficult to do, although far simpler to look at. I believe that everything looks more or less okay in color. I don’t know. Color seems…vulgar to me—sort of like Revlon ads.

JB: Many of your photographs are humorous. When you frame those shots, are you looking at something that’s making you laugh?

EE: I don’t know that I look for anything in particular. If some of my pictures are funny, I’m very pleased, because I’m interested in humor, but that’s not my reason for taking the pictures. My photographs are nothing more than observation, and some of the things I observe happen to be amusing. When you have to put things together for a book or an exhibit, very often you have to come up with a theme. So okay. You’ve got dog pictures. I have no particular interest or disinterest in dogs, but I’ve got a lot of dog pictures. The same goes for humor. I suppose many of my pictures are humorous, but then many of them are not humorous. If I’m putting together an exhibit, I might group the humorous pictures because then there’s a theme. But it’s just packaging.

JB: Do you own a dog?

EE: Not at the moment, no. I haven’t for a while. Dogs require more care than people. I’ve sort of been collecting children instead.

JB: And beach pictures.

EE: There are a couple of reasons for that. First, beaches are a good place for observing things that I’m interested in. Second, I like to go to the beach to relax and rest every so often, and I might as well do something useful while I’m resting.

JB: For me, one of your most memorable photographs is one that was taken at a nudist camp. A gentleman in the foreground is holding a few baseballs. He’s looking across at a woman who’s bending over. She has a birthmark on her rump that looks suspiciously like a bull’s eye. How did you come to be taking pictures in a nudist camp?

EE: Well, everyone’s got to be somewhere.

JB: Were you on assignment?

EE: Yeah, I was on assignment for the now vanished Holiday magazine. That was one of my very best stories. It was not published. I don’t know why because the pictures are very, very innocent. But I had a wonderful time. I visited nudist colonies all over Europe.

JB: Did the nudists know they were being photographed?

EE: In most cases. People are nudists because presumably they’re not ashamed of walking around without clothes. They’re essentially exhibitionists. In fact, one of the most popular activities at nudist camps is taking pictures of one another. So they can’t object very much to being photographed, providing they have some notion that you’re not exploiting them or doing something tacky.

JB: A few of your photographs, like the “Kitchen Debate” between Nixon and Khrushchev and the shot of Jackie Onassis at JFK’s funeral are so well known they’ve become emblematic of your work. They’re certainly not representative. Do you resent that?

EE: I resent nothing. Why should I resent it if a picture becomes known? The only thing I resent about the “Kitchen Debate” picture—and it has nothing to do with the picture—is that the Nixon reelection campaign used it without my permission. I was annoyed about that because I certainly was not for Nixon. But I’m delighted with the picture. It’s an amusing picture.

JB: Were you on assignment then?

EE: Yes, I was in the Soviet Union photographing at the American Fair. I was working for Westinghouse and, as I remember, I was taking pictures of their installation. But obviously when events happen you don’t just put your camera away. Nixon and Khrushchev were touring the exhibits. They stopped at Macy’s kitchen and got into a discussion. Since silly words were exchanged and since reporters were there, it became a media event called the “Kitchen Debate.”

JB: There was an actual kitchen set up there?

EE: Yeah, it was like an industrial fair set up to show American wares to the unwashed Russians—to show them how advanced we were. That’s what the debate was about, on the lowest possible level. But that was perfectly in keeping with the people debating it.

JB: What kind of camera did you start out using?

EE: A Leica. I mostly use Leicas.

JB: Did you study photography?

EE: Well, I have certain opinions about studying photography. I took a couple of photography courses, but that’s hardly studying photography. You don’t study photography. You do it. All you need to study is the instructions on the box of film. The rest is application.

JB: Did you come to that conclusion as a result of your own studies? Or from having seen the work of photo school grads?

EE: No, no. I don’t mean to put down photography schools. They’re a perfectly pleasant way to spend time—to meet people and exchange hypos or whatever people do there. I suppose some people feel they need structure or discipline, but you might as well go to a school for basket weaving. And in fact, I think basket weaving is probably more complex than photography in the sense of technique.

JB: When did you come to New York?

EE: I came to New York several times while I was still living in Los Angeles because I couldn’t bear LA. At least to live there. I tried New York out a few times in the late Forties and early Fifties. I worked here just before I was drafted into the army in 1951. Since I got out in 1953, I’ve always lived here.

JB: How did you come to work with Roy Stryker at Standard Oil?

EE: I was making my rounds in the early Fifties, as people do when they come to New York, and I went to see him with my pictures. I guess he liked what he saw, and I was an eager young fellow, so he tried me out. He was a very giving person. And perceptive. He thought I needed a job, which I did, so he hired me on the spot.

JB: Stryker seems to have had a profound effect on people who worked with him. Gordon Parks, for instance, says that Stryker was one of the most influential people in his life in terms of directing him and teaching him what to look for when he photographed. Did you learn the same sorts of things from Stryker?

EE: Absolutely not. Stryker was a nice, decent man. The substantial thing he did for me was give me a job. He also did other things that were not so attractive. He kept my negatives. Obviously, when you’re seventeen or eighteen years old you don’t think about those things, but in retrospect, I’m really quite annoyed that I lost my earliest work. I seem to have kept everything but that. But that’s the way things were. It was difficult to know then that one’s negatives might be useful in later life.

JB: Have you tried to get them back?

EE: Well, theoretically, I could borrow them if I knew where to locate them, but that’s different from having them myself, and other people have access to them and can use them in any way they want. Of course, there should be no complaint because those were the rules. I believe, however, that it’s wrong, and certainly the stuff should have reverted to the photographers after some time.

JB: You also met Steichen when you made your rounds, didn’t you?

EE: Yes. I needed a job again, so he sent me to Valentino Sarra, who was a commercial photographer with a big studio. He was a really gross, bad photographer. He did the worst kind of photography that was being done then. You know, people with tennis rackets and Vaseline on their brows? However, it was a small factory of photography, and it was very, very instructive to work in such a place and see how the big boys did it then—and still do now in other styles. It was a great lesson.

JB: Were you a photographer’s assistant?

EE: No, I was lower than that. You see, at that time if Steichen called somebody and said, “I’ve got a nice young fellow here, why don’t you give him a job?” they’d give him a job whether they needed someone or not. So I was hired and after the favor was done—and it didn’t take long—I was fired because they didn’t rally need me. But in the few weeks I was there I happened to notice a few very significant things. The most significant was that in commercial photography, the least important thing to know is photography. The most important thing to know is how to do business.

JB: How did you hook up with Magnum?

EE: One of the people I met during that period was Robert Capa. I looked him up in Paris when I was in the army, because that’s where he was living. He was extraordinary, just as legend has it. He liked what he saw, and so he told me that when I got out of the army, he would take me into Magnum. Which he did.

JB: The chroniclers of your career never fail to point out that you were eager to take on any assignment when you first started out because you wanted to establish a reputation for being willing to do anything. After a while, though, were there assignments you would turn down?

EE: Taking on any assignment was a kind of arrogance on my part. Certainly there are jobs I prefer to others, but you don’t take jobs to fulfill your innermost needs. There are those occasional jobs that somehow fit in with your point of view and what you’d like to do, but that’s unusual. Some photographers are able to kid themselves into thinking that what they’re doing for their customers is their life’s mission. That’s fine for them, but that has never been the case for me. And I don’t think that’s a problem at all. I really don’t believe you have to love what you do to do it well. I think if everybody loved what he did—although most people seem to say that they do—it would be a very sad day. Because look at all the crap that’s around. How can you love that?

JB: Were you blackballed at Life magazine at one point?

EE: Many of us Magnum photographers were blackballed from Time Inc., the parent corporation, when we were fighting to hold onto our copyrights. Because Time Inc. was very powerful, it could make certain immoral demands on photographers. They required freelancers to turn over all rights if they wanted to work. Freelancers have to make a living and they’re very susceptible to lack of work. I suppose that was one way of beating photographers into submission. But they didn’t succeed in the end, and with that we set a precedent that’s still adhered to today. There was really absolutely no reason, and there is still no reason, why anybody who commissions work should own it and make a profit out of it beyond the initial use.

JB: Are there any contemporary photographers whose work excites you?

EE: There are a lot of photographers whose work puts me to sleep. There are very, very few interesting photographers, in my opinion. There are armies of competent, slick, professional, tolerable photographers who don’t pollute the atmosphere too much. One needs only to open magazines and look up on billboards to see their work. On the level of art, or what you will, there are very few. There are some, obviously. But that’s how it should be.

JB: Like who?

EE: I’m not going to say. Why go through laundry lists? I would only say that photographers who have a point of view and who have something to say, who do not have pre-digested views and who do not mold their observations around a technique—whether it be a specific camera or a wide-angle lens—those are the people who are interesting.

JB: Do you have a favorite photograph?

EE: Of my own? Not particularly.

JB: Of anyone else’s?

EE: Yes. I have a couple of pictures upstairs that I like a lot. I have a Lartigue, which is the most elegant picture I think I’ve ever seen. It’s of a lady—it must have been one of his wives—reclining on a sofa looking beautiful. And Kertesz once gave me one of his pictures, which is one of my favorites—Satiric Dancer.

JB: Do you have a darkroom here?

EE: Yeah, I have a very nice, private little darkroom that I rarely use anymore.

JB: Do you have assistants to do your printing?

EE: I would love to have an assistant who prints. It is harder to find a good printer than it is to find a good photographer. Anybody can make a print, but a printer who understands value and prints properly is just about as rare as the dodo bird.

JB: Are you working mainly on films now?

EE: The last couple of years have been mainly films. Now I want to get back to photography. Unfortunately, you can’t suddenly decide, okay, this afternoon I’m going to go out and take some wonderful pictures. It has to evolve. You have to have an atmosphere. So I’m going to try to reserve some time for that.

JB: What films are you working on now?

EE: I’ve just finished two. I’ve been doing a series called “Great Pleasure Hunts” for Home Box Office. They’re satirical films made all over the world. They have to do with excess. The one that’s on the air now is called “Great Pleasure Hunt Part III.” One of the themes is the ultimate meal. Actually, what we’re exploring is which is better, food or sex? The resolution is that they’re both pretty good.

JB: That sounds interesting.

EE: The last one, number four, is titled “The Great Pleasure Hunt USA.” The theme, loosely, is the self-improvement craze. The message is, why bother? It’s all done as a joke.

JB: Has your knowledge of still photography helped you with filmmaking?

EE: Any picture—whether it’s a still picture, a moving picture, a drawing, a painting, or anything two-dimensional—has to have structure, composition, dynamics, and balance. Then too, point of view crosses over. Otherwise, films are really totally different from photography.

JB: One last question. Why did you take up photography anyway?

EE: Well, one has to do something. There’s no great cosmic reason. I suppose photography appealed to me because it was something I could do on my own. It wasn’t a real job. I’ve always resisted real jobs.

© Janis Bultman 1985, 2015, 2018

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