Elliot Erwitt 1928-2023

By David Butow –

Elliot Erwitt was one of the icons of photography in the 20th Century. Known primarily for his witty observations, he was also a first-rate photojournalist who worked on assignment taking pictures of major political figures, news events and movie stars.

His street photographs, mostly from his home town of New York, are what most caught the eye of the collectors, museums and the general public. He is one of the rare photographers who was able to put sophisticated humor into photographs. There are a lot of funny people out there, but not a lot of funny photographs, and the ones that are tend to be kind of simplistic. For some reason, the medium does not seem to be one that easily communicates layered humor. But he found a way. His pictures would catch your eye, then you’d do a double take, maybe laugh and shake your head, and look again, and smile.

The word “street photographer” is overused these days, sorry, but I can think of only a handful of people who can go out, and seemingly with out any specific intent or subject matter in mind, bring back photographs that express a truly unique vision and give us a fresh look on scenes we might see all the time.

In the early 90’s, I was a contract photographer with the Los Angeles Times and my colleague Steve Appleford went to interview Erwitt for a newspaper piece about an exhibition in Santa Monica. I maneuvered to get the assignment. We met up in the gallery, and I thought instead of taking the usual portrait inside we’d go outside and I would try to photograph him in the same spirit of his street work.

A couple of years later I sat next to him on a bus with some other photographers while we were working on a book project on Hollywood. I don’t remember much from that chat except that he was enjoying using new compact zoom lenses.

I wish I could have gotten to know him better, but we can see a lot of his personality in his quirky, ironic, witty, and playful photographs. I think he wants us to smile.

Portrait of Elliot Erwitt taken in Santa Monica, California c. 1992 ©David Butow

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