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Tuesday 03.20.07

« PSU MFA Monday Night Lecture Series • Tonight: Shaun O'Dell | Main | So much for a crisis in art criticism »

An Interview with Elliott Erwitt

Elliott Erwitt

Elliott Erwitt is one of the most exceptional and prolific photographers in the field today. Born in 1928, he's been photographing steadily (and indulging in his hobby on the side) for over half a century. Erwitt's Leica has captured iconic figures from Che Guevara to Marilyn Monroe, as well as countless slices of daily life, hundreds (perhaps thousands) of dogs, and the ever-evolving social landscape of America, Europe and points beyond. A selection of images culled from his latest book, entitled Personal Best, is on view at the Portland Art Museum through April 29th. Mr. Erwitt recently spent a few days in Portland in order to deliver a lecture at PAM, and kindly shared a little of his time for the following interview.

Jessica Bromer: What were your early experiences with photography like... how did they lead you to devote your life to this type of work?

Elliott Erwitt: It simply started out as being a way of earning a living, nothing else.

JB: As a kid, when did you first pick up a camera?

EE: When I was 16. I was on my own already. I've been using it ever since to make a living.

JB: Do you still think of it in those terms or do you see yourself as an artist?

EE: I certainly do not see myself as an artist. That's not my job. It's somebody else's job.

JB: You see yourself as....

EE: I'm a photographer. I'm a professional photographer who works with people, and has a hobby. Which is photography.

copyright Elliott Erwitt/Magnum Photos.
Russia. Moscow. Nikita Krushchev and Richard Nixon. 1959

JB: You rose to prominence after taking a picture of (then Vice-President) Richard Nixon and (Soviet Premier) Nikita Khrushchev during the famous "kitchen debate" where they were arguing capitalism vs. communism in a model American kitchen (during the 1959 American National Exhibition in Moscow). What memories have stayed with you about that day?

EE: My impression was of two very silly people grandstanding, nothing more. It was certainly not a very serious event. It was in public, and it was, if anything, kind of silly.

copyright Elliott Erwitt/Magnum Photos
USA. New York City. 2000

JB: You take a lot of pictures of dogs. What is it about them that you're so drawn to?

EE: I like dogs. I'm not particularly drawn to them, as I am to other things. They're everywhere, so we see them. They're sympathetic. They're nice. They don't ask for prints.

JB: Which photographers do you admire most?

EE: The photographers I admire are the ones who are part of my agency, Magnum. The founders, of course. Documentary photographers. The people who deal with the real world as opposed to the conceptual one. In fact I rather dislike....abhor....some conceptual photography. I think it's an unpleasant fact of life.

JB: Could you expand on that?

EE: Well, I think if people want to be conceptual, they ought to be painters or sculptors or...whatever, but the thing about photography that's sort of exceptional and wonderful and unique, is that it's about what you see, not about what you construct.

JB: In choosing the group of photographs for Personal Best, was it important to you to create a balance between humorous images and more serious work....... serious in the sense of tone?

EE: I'm perfectly serious about everything, whether it's humorous or not.

copyright Elliott Erwitt/Magnum Photos
Spain. Madrid. 1995 Prado Museum

JB: The 1950's....and 60's...and, well, onto today...were a tense time for race relations in America. By making black Americans the subjects of some of your pictures, you and some of the other documentary photographers working during segregation gave them a central presence they were largely denied elsewhere. Do you think that documentary photographers working at the time impacted the way that viewers looked at race relations, leading to greater empathy toward the oppressed? Were you making a conscious political choice to show certain things?

EE: My intention was simply to see what I saw. And to take pictures of that. I have no preconceptions. The picture of the drinking fountain has become a kind of iconic picture, so I'm very pleased about that. And if that helps to show great injustice in this country fifty years ago that in some ways endures now--not in the same manner--but if it does point out something to many people, then I'm really satisfied, but I don't think I set out to do that. If my pictures have done that I'm pleased, but that was not the intention. My intention at that time was to be just a reporter. Or just a visual chronicler of what I see.

copyright Elliott Erwitt/Magnum Photos
USA. North Carolina. 1950.

JB: Has your photographic method or philosophy evolved significantly in the last fifty years?

EE: I do exactly the same same thing now that I did fifty years ago. Nothing's changed. Maybe I've gotten a little lazier, but that's about it.

copyright Elliott Erwitt/Magnum Photos
USA. New York City. Grace Kelley. 1956

JB: Do you think documentary photography today is less of an important cultural force than it was fifty years ago?

EE: I think documentary photography is the same now as ever. The only thing that is perhaps lacking is places to show it. Magazines are not terribly interesting as a vehicle for picture stories. Newspapers are, but they don't show more than one or two pictures. There's less distribution of documentary photography, but I think its being done just as much as ever, in fact maybe more. There seems to be more photographers around than ever.

JB: Are you interested in using digital photography--do you see it as a positive development?

EE: Digital photography is the same as the other kind of photography, its just that the film is different. It's more efficient. It's particularly useful in commercial work, because you're in and out of it quickly. The only thing that is not good about it, is when people manipulate, which is much easier to do with digital files. So as long as people respect photography as a way of seeing what is real, that's fine, but when they start mucking around with it digitally, then you might say that digital photography has made that a little easier, but in the hands of responsible photographers it's no different.

JB: Do you feel that's diminished the authority of photography in popular perception, knowing how easy it is to manipulate things?

EE: Well the problem is the public very often doesn't know that something's been manipulated, because that's the point of manipulating things--to make it seem real even when you know that it isn't. I think there should be a rule, a law, that any manipulated photograph should be identified as such.

JB: You're still working today...

EE: Well, not today. But yesterday I was.

JB: Did you take pictures in Portland?

EE: Yeah, I took a couple snaps. I'm going to Korea now on a job, so I'll be working there, and then on to Japan. I'll be working there as well.

JB: Well, I'm all out of questions... is there anything else you'd like to talk about?

EE: Nope.

JB: Well, thank you very much for meeting with me.

EE: I think I've talked too much already.

JB: [laughs]

Posted by Jessica Bromer on March 20, 2007 at 0:50 | Comments (10)


more interviews please
way more interviews on this site please
please, more interviews

Posted by: walks out [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 20, 2007 05:28 PM

I agree! I realize that interviews, as some have said, can be 'a kind of advocacy'...but in this case, who cares! This was great and I hope there's more.

Posted by: lsd [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 20, 2007 06:24 PM

That was excellent.

Posted by: lastwater [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 20, 2007 09:03 PM

Does anyone else think its a little interesting that he says a responsible photographer will use a camera for "seeing what is real"?

Posted by: minimum [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 20, 2007 10:14 PM

it seems generational as well as genre specific. easy to dismiss. still, it's interesting to hear someone stick to that line of thinking about photography.

Posted by: melia [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 21, 2007 08:07 AM

Yes, we have more interviews lined up but we wont be diluting our critical focus, it's just an additional element we are adding to the site (other interesting additions are in the works too).

Generally, the interviews will be big name artists and director/curators. The next one is a very famous painter who doesn't have a show in Portland though weve seen some of their best works on PAM"S walls in the last 3 years.

The advocacy question is more of an issue for younger artists who benefit more from critcal review and being tested thus. It goes without saying that Erwitt has already proven himself, the man is a machine! Nice work Jessica.

Posted by: Double J [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 21, 2007 10:34 AM

The purpose of pictures.

Hmmm. Could be a trick? But it's certainly fascinating to hear different perspectives on the flat plane perception of the pictorial. Mine is so polar, though I respect the shock of the instant, that 'perfect' moment, I am sure I wouldn't have had the same interview decorum herein. It's a bit of a flashback to a bygone era as our technology has vastly changed and informed. Photographers are artists who wear a different toolbelt. Erwitt is a solid photographer in the pantheon of the medium, and though he may seem a touch old-fashioned I kind of know where he is coming from. And, I feel a bit blessed to have crossed over from the analogue to the digital, hoping to keep up with the changing of the guard along the way.

Posted by: TJ Norris [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 23, 2007 10:50 PM

In a conversation with a graphic artist about the Erwitt lecture, my friend expressed an almost hostile contempt for photography as art. “You can’t interpret a photograph, you just read it”. I replied that it was ironic that Erwitt seemed to agree with his opinion considering the things he said in the lecture and Jessica’s interview.

The relevant comment came when Erwitt refused to be labeled an artist in the Q and A after the lecture and in the interview. He suggested that his job is photography and being an artist is a job for someone else.

Maybe I’m missing something, but this seems like a poke in the eye for the audience trying to find some justification for labeling photography as fine art. The lecture didn’t help much either. His presentation wasn’t much of a lecture, but rather a slide show, with a few aloof and sometimes acerbic comments.

I’m not sorry I went and I did enjoy the experience, but it was a sharp contrast to the Jerry Uelsman lecture at the PAM back in 2004. Jerry’s presentation contained so much more humor and passion as well as a genuine attempt to connect with the audience. He is an educator and someone who believes he is an artist as well as a photographer.

Maybe Erwitt understood that his audience was dominated by photographers as opposed to a more diverse group of art lovers. I doubt it would have mattered who was in the audience. His attitude seems to be what-you-see-is-what-you-get, and if that doesn’t do it for you, so be it. I think I was one of the few non-photographers in the audience and I suspect my viewpoint was shared by a very small minority.

A non-photographer will look at one of Erwit’s images and ask “how did he get that picture?” A photographer will ask “how many shots did he take to get that one?” It’s about editing, not setup. Snapping pictures is the mechanics and editing is the art. The lecture was worth attending for the elegantly edited slide show, not the comments.

Back to my friend’s original comment, any single Erwitt image only needs to be read for the viewer to get it. That is what makes his photos so great. His imagery is easy for most people to connect with; simple, direct, and very clever. You don’t need a lot of art savvy to understand and enjoy an Erwitt image. Discussions with people who don’t care for his work make me think that too much sophistication inhibits ones ability to appreciate these pictures.

The bottom line on Erwitt’s appearance is that he is an icon for photography, not just for American photography but for all photography. The fact that we were able to get him scheduled for an event in Portland speaks volumes on the quality of the local art scene and more importantly, the national prominence of the Portland photography community. The importance of the local photo scene is generally over looked by the art going public due to this persistent disconnect between fine art and photography.

I’m sorry more people have yet to hear the concise historic intro given by Terry Toedtemeier before every PAM Photo Council sponsored event. He talks about how he became the first and only Curator of Photography at the Portland Art museum back in the early 70’s. He recounts his part in the formation of the Blue Sky Gallery photography co-op and the early 20th century influence Minor White had on the Portland scene. He tells of how for two and a half decades he built relationships with organizations like the Oregon Historical Society, the State Library in Salem and private collectors. His contacts enabled him amassed a high quality collection of 6000 images; with no budget. He talks about how Guy Swenson, who started the Photographic image gallery in 1984, began suggesting the creation of an private photography counsel in the late 90’s to promote the idea of collecting photography to the general public.

The result was a core group who included the likes of Terry, Guy, Stu Levy, Chris Rauschenberg, and Steve Josefesberg. This group solicited the support of Bruce Guenther and John Buchanan and formed the PAM Photo Council. The council gave Terry his first budget for the purchase of work for the collection. More importantly, the Portland photography community had a political mechanism for advancing the agenda of promoting photography as fine art in Portland. Without this, the photo gallery in the Jubitz Center would never have happened.

The importance of the photo gallery at PAM can not be overstated. It is the only gallery dedicated to photography in a major museum, west of Chicago and North of San Francisco. This gallery offers the public a chance to understand the context for the important roll the medium plays in the history and culture of our society. It will also help nurture an understanding of the overlap between photo documentation and fine art.

The new gallery and the Photo Council will raise awareness in the region about the rich, deep history of photography we have here and the huge amount of talent that has grown out that history. This will hopefully help cultivate a larger local following for photographic art. With the Blue Sky moving to the DeSoto Art Mall next summer, the recent arrival of Erik Schneider’s Quality Pictures Gallery, and the addition on another major photography dealer moving from San Francisco to the DeSoto building, maybe the public will start embracing the medium.

Regardless of the local population’s readiness for a major upgrade in the photography shown here, it’s coming, and in a big way. Part of Terry’s intro included comments on an intriguing roster of pending and possible high profile lectures in the future. The Erwitt lecture was a snap shot of evidence for how much the local photo community has grown in recent years and of how much more growth may lie ahead.

Duane Snider

Posted by: Duane [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 25, 2007 12:52 AM

The age old argument about photography teetering on the edge of what is/isn't fine art is as historical as it is hysterical. Duane, I really appreciate your argument here. As someone who uses photography as his primary medium I rarely ever label myself a photographer in this purist sense of the technical terminology that is implied by many in the old school. And that is just where Erwitt came from. I studied with Abelardo Morell, Nick Nixon and Laura McPhee, all whom I would class as dedicated practitioners partial to this histrical context. Though without typical parallels between artists like Motherwell and Siskind where would we be? Without Stieglitz's "equivalents" would we look at skies with a camera quite in the same way...and don't even get me started with the entire rest of the 20th and now 21st century. One of the founding fathers of photography, F. Holland Day, was more a painter than a photographer in my minds eye.

Of course, I think much of the balance in the world of photography stems on the shift in the camera itself as a tool for documentation. And you also might look at artists who have used the camera towards ends that question that very issue, a photographer like MaryEllen Mark for instance, whose work is rich in all of the components of fine art, but capture the sense of a place in various ways as seen in the news. Then there's David Hockney and Andy Warhol and maybe blatantly, Andreas Gurksy is worth a mention. :)

One omission of note in your comments about the local scene is of course the growth and expansion of a much needed non-profit that both educates and has several forums for critique, exhibition and a serious take on th medium. Chris Bennett's Newspace Center for Photography has added a vital, active component to this community of image makers.

This is a real discussion. Thanks for the interview Jessica.

Posted by: TJ Norris [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 25, 2007 10:43 AM


Thanks for your kind support. I did think about mentioning Newspace in my comment, but I was afraid I was trying to say too much at one time. I support Chris and his extraordinary efforts to promte a grass roots photograpy movement. I even bougt a couple of great pieces out of the last auction.

As for my lengthy comments, I'm trying to inject an outsiders viewpoint. What I mean is that I don't have the fine arts degree, I've never worked in a gallery, never been published in a major venue, but I've been around the Portland Art Scene for over twenty years. I believe my opinion is just as valid as anyone elses. I'm greatful for this amazing venue that Jeff and his loyal group have created.

I admit my writing needs a little work, but I see that the comments I'm posting are giving me some excellent practice. The more I do it the more my mechanics will improve.

I hope my comments will help promote more of a discussion from the readership because I know of many smart and savvy people who read PORT. Their input would add much to what is already a great venue.

Thanks again

Posted by: Duane [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 25, 2007 10:33 PM

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