David Alan Harvey Interviews Magnum Legend Elliott Erwitt

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“It’s about reacting to what you see, hopefully without preconception. You can find pictures anywhere. It’s simply a matter of noticing things and organizing them. You just have to care about what’s around you and have a concern with humanity and the human comedy. ” - Elliott Erwitt

Born in Paris in 1928 to Russian parents, Erwitt spent his childhood in Milan, then emigrated to the US, via France, with his family in 1939. As a teenager living in Hollywood, he developed an interest in photography and worked in a commercial darkroom before experimenting with photography at Los Angeles City College. In 1948 he moved to New York and exchanged janitorial work for film classes at the New School for Social Research.Erwitt traveled in France and Italy in 1949 with his trusty Rolleiflex camera. In 1951 he was drafted for military service and undertook various photographic duties while serving in a unit of the Army Signal Corps in Germany and France.While in New York, Erwitt met Edward Steichen, Robert Capa and Roy Stryker, the former head of the Farm Security Administration. Stryker initially hired Erwitt to work for the Standard Oil Company, where he was building up a photographic library for the company, and subsequently commissioned him to undertake a project documenting the city of Pittsburgh.In 1953 Erwitt joined Magnum Photos and worked as a freelance photographer for Collier’s, Look, Life, Holiday and other luminaries in that golden period for illustrated magazines. To this day he is for hire and continues to work for a variety of journalistic and commercial outfits.

In the late 1960s Erwitt served as Magnum’s president for three years. He then turned to film: in the 1970s he produced several noted documentaries and in the 1980s eighteen comedy films for Home Box Office. Erwitt became known for benevolent irony, and for a humanistic sensibility traditional to the spirit of Magnum.

 

45 Responses to “David Alan Harvey Interviews Magnum Legend Elliott Erwitt”


  • Thanks for that. He really is the best.

  • Well, we can all say now that we were here at the beginning of Mr Harvey’s career as a straight man.

  • AKAKY

    i just saw your picture fly by in the archive window

  • Nice to see dogs getting some equal time after all the cat fur that has been flying around here lately.

    Many, many thanks to DAH and Mr. Erwitt for this… I have been a fan for many years but there were several images in the mix I had never seen before. As DAH says, truly an inspiration.

  • thats a favorite interview.. thanks..

  • I liked what he had to say about “art” photography a lot, being the artist that he is. Liked what he said on editions, too. A fun interview… and what a magnificent 18!

    Sidney Atkins…

    what… what… what the hell?????!!!!!

  • SIDNEY FROSTFROG

    i was always a dog guy growing up…i had dogs, my sister had cats….dogs followed me around and seemed to like me always, and the cats were well just not that friendly, a bit arrogant, and just not as much fun as dogs who followed me when i was out hunting turtles…..now i am into cats….one observes cats….they most resemble animals in the wild…can be fine if i am gone…..and they are the only domestic animal that CHOSE us…..and mostly they score very high on Instagram……

    cheers, david

  • Such a treat for a Friday morning!
    Thanks DAH and Burn.

  • Figured I would press somebody’s button with that crack.

    To set the record straight, I grew up in a household filled with animals, dogs and cats of course, but also snakes, lizards, various birds, hamsters, mice, raccoon, skunk, flying squirrels, etc.
    While I like dogs and find them affectionate and amusing, I’m actually more of a cat guy by temperament. I find cats much easier to live with… quiet, undemanding, and fastidious. In a lifetime of cat encounters I have only met maybe three or four cats I didn’t like or who didn’t like me. Wish I could say the same thing about people.

    But you gotta admit, dogs are gregarious, photogenic, and humorous as all get out. As Mr. Erwitt has shown us time and time again.

  • PRESS MY BUTTON!!!! PRESS MY BUTTON!!!! YOU THOUGHT YOU WOULD PRESS MY BUTTON?????

    Never.

    But, if you ever pass through the great megapolis of Wasilla, you can stop by and pet my cat buddies, as well as any dogs who happen to be hanging around. Odds are good a moose will stroll into the yard. You can give it a pet, too.

    Moose love to petted. Especially calves, with mother mooses standing by to nod in approval…

  • What sort of a pet would a Moose want? A flea circus maybe?

  • Very interesting interview, although I don´t understand everything… (I have to improve my english…).
    Beautiful pictures from a Maestro!
    cheers

  • Cats? Dogs? Moose? Can we talk about the damned FISH? :)

    I really liked this interview. Maestro Erwitt has such a peaceful physical presence, attached to a childlike playfulness of mind, that he reminds me of the Dalai Lama.

    Yeah, the Dalai Lama of Photography. That’s Elliot Erwitt.

  • Jeff, you’re giving everyone a haddock.

  • Thanks for the reminder, Jeff. I forgot to mention the tropical fish in my aquarium. They’re not so good for petting, though.

    True – we have taken a little bit of an absurd diversion from the topic – that of being treated to the work, wit, and humor of the maestro although he does not at all remind me of the Dalai Lama, but indeed he does come across as “a peaceful physical presence, attached to a childlike playfulness of mind.”

    John – I believe Alaska moose are much inclined to keep mosquito pets than flea pets. I hope I get to see his upcoming book, Regarding Women. I like the title, too. It would even like to have one for myself, should it prove feasible.

  • This was really great to listen to David, Thank you.

  • Akaky:

    Chum, you salmon’ me?

  • I have left quite enough comments here, but I find I just keep thinking about this post and the 18 images included. I have been wondering how one goes about pulling 18 out of such a rich body of work as that produced by Mr. Elliot Erwitt as a statement about his life’s work and who he is. It seems to me to be a very effective selection, including images probably just about everyone with eyesight who lives in the modern world is familiar with along with images less well-known, yet relevant to the statement.

    Who came up with this edit? David? Mr. Erwitt himself? A colleague? A friend?

    I don’t ask for an explanation as to the selection process, as I think such an explanation is impossible, but I do wonder about it.

  • FROSTFROG

    I let Elliott choose this portfolio….he actually left out a few of my favourites, yet no matter what we did, a whole bunch would be left out…yet this is a pretty decent cross section of his styles and subjects…..all interviews and in fact all of the content we publish here is intended to simply pique your interest on a particular photographer….We assume those interested will search out more….

    cheers, david

  • As a long-time fan, I’m happy to see this.
    Nice to meet you, Mr. Erwitt.

  • one very interesting thing about Elliott …clearly he is very successful economically….he always was very pragmatic with his career….he did not scorn commercial shooting, and yet maintains his personal style and sense of humour all along and through his work…

    Elliott will take of course a 25k per day commercial ad shoot….BUT what is really interesting is that he will also take a $250. per day shoot if he is not busy….he comes from a mentality that if somebody offers you a job, you take it….no matter the fee…..

    and what he says about photography as a hobby, is for real….and the beauty of photography is of course that one never “retires”……i do not know of any real photographer who retired so to speak….retire from what? earning a living is something we must all think about…yet the really big icons put the work first, the projects first, and figure out how to earn a living later….in this way, they end up making a good living….if you put the earning a living first, most likely you won’t….

    just get the pictures….if you have good work, the rest will fall into place…..

    cheers, david

  • If I were CNN, I would give David a travel/interview/photography show and make him the next Anthony Bourdain.

  • PRESTON MERCHANT

    thnx for the shoutout and good to see you again here Preston…

    i had the good pleasure a couple of years ago to work with Anthony Bourdain for an ad for Discovery Channel….for sure that is a gig he relishes and it suits him…yet his travel and work schedule is over the top….i love talking to all kinds of people which is of course what i do as a very big part of my job as a working photographer….yet i doubt i would enjoy that part as the only part….i need to shoot….besides any regular tv show is a train you cannot get off…i just did a one month tv bit around Korea where i was doing just that sort of thing and shooting as well…it was hard i can tell you having a videographer around all the time…..i like too much my freedom…..these little iPhone videos are easy enough to do…i do not edit them…they are straight off the phone…..and intended to help or inspire this audience….i think my place is right here…

    cheers, david

  • @ DAH and ALL:
    Thanks for this post and specially for the last comment:

    “Elliott will take of course a 25k per day commercial ad shoot….BUT what is really interesting is that he will also take a $250. per day shoot if he is not busy….he comes from a mentality that if somebody offers you a job, you take it….no matter the fee…..”

    I have to deal permanently with this kind of topic.
    What about the “integrity” of the photographer?? I mean, what about your photographic writing if you take whatever assignment?? The “ethics” of the artist??
    How can you shoot something that you are not YOU…
    I wonder if with more than 1k per ad shoot, “photographic ethics” vanishes??!?

    Maybe my vision is not so pragmatic… and I need to change that direction… and leave apart my ego.
    Thought choice.
    Shine. P.

  • PATRICIO

    i did not say “take whatever assignment”…i only said take whatever fee….a big difference….the Magnum crew never just does work for work….we take things that interest us…..if we can get paid to do it , great…but we will do it anyway whether we get paid or not if it is a subject we care about…the best photographers CARE about how their name is used in connection with a photo more than they care about the price paid…every one of the best knows that you want to be associated with good pictures no matter what…and with good publications and publishers….small publishers can be a better place to be than large publishers….a mediocre picture in the New York Times does you NO GOOD..does you harm in fact…get the best stuff published….wherever it is….

    Elliott will take assignments that Larry Towell would not , and vice versa…that is normal…everyone has their own “break point”…yet for sure my Magnum colleagues will end up with a book on the table one way or another….that is what matters…

    cheers, david

  • Wow!!!! Fantastic . I love this “interviewing the Legends” series !!!

  • USA New York 1953 mother with child lying on the bed is one of my favorite photos EVER. It’s one of my reference points when taking photos of my kids.

  • a civilian-mass audience

    Welcome home MR.ELLIOTT !!!
    Viva Maestro !!!

    Thank you for “the vision “…

  • I have a problem with the terminology “art photography”. I believe photography itself is a form of art with a very new medium which is around 200 years old only, approximately.

  • DM, it seems to me you don’t have a problem – you have it figured out. But think about where photography came from – first it was used as studies for painters or for them to do under drawings with… and later it was found to be a great scientific tool – Then later still, loads of vernacular uses – documenting mug shots, birthday cakes, camping trips, etc… not all of these images can or should be considered works of art. ART they made with an artist’s tool? Yes, of course, however a house is painted with the same artist’s tools a art painter would use to render an image on a canvas or panel. All forms of art use specific tools to their craft. These tools can almost always be taken outside the artist’s space and used for a variety of vernacular and scientific purposes.

  • “ART” = “ARE” got so used to writing art, i guess… No, wait, I was using old English! yes, that’s my excuse.

  • @ ALL:
    I have a link seems appropiate to this situation: 35 little-mini-tiny “workshops” from Magnum photographers in one simple answer:

    What advice would you give young photographers?

    http://erickimphotography.com/blog/2011/09/26/35-magnum-photographers-give-their-advice-to-aspiring-photographers/

    Have a good week.
    P.
    PS: Only 10 f***ing days till Word Cup kick off! Can not wait anymore!!!

  • Jason_Houge – I feel photography is much more difficult than painting. A painter starts with a blank canvas with the liberty to create anything at will. But in photography the canvas is already made. We just have to observe, feel and get connected to that canvas to produce an image which would make people care about it as well. But today people feel the opposite that photography is easier than painting. Everybody has some bucks in pocket that they can go out and spend on buying a camera and click around claiming them to be art. How many of the so called photographers have tried their hands at other forms of art before plunging into photography? Photography has become a style statement now, at least in my country. Everybody wants recognition by doing photography.

  • We don’t use the term “art painting” for a painting, then why use it for photography?

  • DM – In classical painting: yes you had a blank canvas – but you still had to choose a palette and compose an image before you could paint it. You still had to exercise visual seeing and looking and finding the right angle(s) to make that image happen. A painting isn’t just a flat object – it’s just like photography in that regard. In current conceptual painting an artist may also add other elements into the work that the paint has to interact with – stitching, a photograph, pattern printed fabric, some other form of textile that is adhered to the surface in some fashion. Perhaps the painting has 3D elements – a structure built to protrude from the canvas to add an even deeper element to the work….

    Photography is also a form of print making… like techniques with presses the image we hold in our hands is a copy of an original – an Original that takes a great deal of meticulous care and skill to create. If you only view a photograph as an image taken from life – then yes it can be difficult because of the interaction or lack there of you have with your subject. However, if you are an “ARTIST” (used in the snooty sense) you may create your images entirely – think for instance of Cindy Sherman, Gregory Crewdson, Jerry Uelsmann, Hannah Wilke, much of the Helsinki School, etc etc etc… They start with a blank canvas as well and create their images from the ground up – choosing their locations, models, clothing, props, etc to build a message or expression into the final image. This is the type of photography often referred to as Art Photography. What DAH and many others who are in Magnum, VII, and are independent do is some form of documentary photography – But the difference between them and say the local “Joe” at the news paper is that David and his colleagues know how to look at a given scene, judge whether there is even a photograph for them there, move through that space, find the perfect moment in the perfect arrangement and frame it just beautifully in their camera, work their mechanics and still snap that shutter in time.
    James Nachtwey can take the VERY ugly business of war and death and make visually striking images that evoke emotion and invoke change. The same could have been said for Capa and CHIM. But none of these men considered themselves artists. Their photographs sure fit into specific gallery spaces, but that isn’t where they were meant to be seen, they were meant to be in the hands of every man, woman and child. Each of them work(ed) for publications and made books of this work. Are they artists? Retrospectively speaking, yes, absolutely. Were they artists by the definition for their times (with the exception of Nachtwey here since he is still with us) No, they weren’t.

    What about the works of William Klein or Diane Arbus? Artistically masterful and the lines are blurred… So what is Art Photography? Photography strictly made with artistic intent, I suppose… Can other forms of photography be artistic? Absolutely – but they also have their own prefixes: Documentary, War, Concerned, Scientific, Evidence, News… etc. Do we say Art Painting? Not really – but we don’t teach student how to paint houses and fences in art school. Some schools still teach the practical uses of ceramics: pottery and in technical schools: high heat insulation and mechanics… But you can also find sculptures made from that very same material in art school. Do they call it sculpture or Art Ceramics? Oddly enough – no. It’s just called ceramics as sculpture is usually reserved for 3D objects made out of other materials. In Art school photography is also just humbly known as Photography…

    The problem with being just a “photographer” is – at least in my part of the country – people hear that and their next question is “Will you photograph my daughter’s wedding? What do you charge? What about my son’s senior portraits?” Because they’re not looking for any specific skill or style – they just want a picture of their kid that looks like everybody else’s and they want it cheaper than anybody else’s. It’s like a competition for the middle class to see who can have the dullest pictures of them selves made by the cheapest camera operators.

    I have a term for people who just take pictures of what ever for who ever and don’t give a damn about learning to see or think with their work – Camera Technicians. Because that’s all they are. They know how to physically manipulate the camera to make it go click. They may not even know a thing about ISO, shutter or aperture. They don’t often care to think with their work – they don’t often care to think about their work – and they may not even know they can. They just get a thrill out of chasing some form of action and snapping their camera at it, hoping they caught what ever was happening in the sharpest focus to post online or share with their friends. People have even made careers out of being camera technicians. You see it all the time – That same old same old image of the quarter back getting ready to toss the ball, the guys flying through the air making a tackle, the baseball a moment before impact with the bat, the light gleaming off the water next to some lighthouse, the hod rod pulling a wheelie on the drag strip, the boxer, eyes closed, with a mitt rippling the flesh across his face and his spit and sweat flying off in reaction to the force that was inflicted upon his cheek…. I can go on… These are all photos taken by technicians… Are THESE art? I don’t think so. I really don’t.

    To me: Art is a method of expressing one’s thoughts, beliefs, ideas through an act of constructing, image making, sound making, motion of body, or through literature, and maybe a few others I have forgotten…

    Art Photographer may just be a term used by an individual in an effort to describe them selves to avoid the unnecessary harassment to shoot thoughtless images for a low wage.

    Art Photography – Is photography done with the intent of the final print being a work of art.
    Until I change my mind, for me this does NOT include images used for motivational posters and vernacular landscapes of barns and bridges…

    I guess, that’s all for now.

  • Jason_Houge – I agree with you on the camera technician part.

  • @ JASON:
    Great comment! Totally agree with you! In this part of the world, when:


    The problem with being just a “photographer” is – at least in my part of the country – people hear that and their next question is

    Nikon or Canon?

    and my answer is: I shoot with my left eye!

    Shine. Keep looking forward. P.

  • @ Jason_Houge:

    Nicely said.

  • My advice to aspiring photographers is to make sure you do not drop your toilet down the toilet. This will usually make the camera inoperable, especially if it’s a dslr, and will make you both look and feel incredibly foolish. Remember that the camera strap was invented for a reason and not dropping the camera down the toilet is it. Taking the lens cap off before you take pictures is also very sound advice, I’ve found, as is not eating your sister in law’s leftovers when they no longer qualify as leftovers and do qualify as archaeological specimens from the Paleolithic Age. This sort of thing is usually hard on your gastrointestinal tract.

  • AKAKY,

    “…make sure you do not drop your toilet down the toilet.” A topological nightmare that would be, most def.’ I shudder to imagine the consequences… particularly the visual ones.

  • Ahem…well, let’s try this again. “My advice to aspiring photographers is to make sure you do not drop your CAMERA down the toilet. This will usually make the camera inoperable, especially if it’s a dslr, and will make you both look and feel incredibly foolish. Remember that the camera strap was invented for a reason and not dropping the camera down the toilet is it. Taking the lens cap off before you take pictures is also very sound advice, I’ve found, as is not eating your sister in law’s leftovers when they no longer qualify as leftovers and do qualify as archaeological specimens from the Paleolithic Age. This sort of thing is usually hard on your gastrointestinal tract.”

    I would also advise that an aspiring photographer place a UV or some other form of protective filter over the lens, the better to avoid computer viruses that spread photographically transmitted diseases. Despite what the anti-filter folks say, it is better to prevent these diseases outright than to risk catching them and then trying to get them cured. Safe photography is always a good idea.

    For those of you who might want to try dropping your toilet into your toilet, pleased be advised that this is one of those situations in which more is not better, unless you plan to use the second toilet as a planter. In that case, all is well and good luck with the geraniums.

  • AKAKY,

    I live to keep you honest!

  • a civilian-mass audience

    My dream came true…tech talk in BURNLAND !!!

    AKAKY,can I use the planter for my azaleas…?:)

  • a civilian-mass audience

    “You can find pictures anywhere. It’s simply a matter of noticing things and organizing them. You just have to care about what’s around you and have a concern with humanity and the human comedy.”

    Elliott Erwitt

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