Like few others, he was able to capture the small theater of life, the comical moments and the intimate moments, with a look full of humor and humanity: the photographer Elliott Erwitt is the subject of a rich retrospective at the Maillol Museum in Paris until August 15. This journey in 220 photos is a party.
Elliott Erwitt, 94, is what we call a total photographer. He has done everything: intimate photography, major reporting, fashion, advertising. His singular look, both mocking and full of humanity, illuminates all his work, including the Maillol Museum (Paris 7e) presents a delightful retrospective until August 15, 2023.
Pillar of the prestigious Magnum agency where he joined in 1954 under the leadership of Robert Capa, Elliott Erwitt straddles the two shores of the Atlantic: born in France to Russian immigrant parents in 1928, he then grew up in Italy before to make a career in the United States and travel the world as a reporter. Rich in 220 photos, the exhibition is divided into ten themes defined by the artist himself (couples, children, dogs, cities, etc.). Whatever the angle approached, we find his amused, ironic but affectionate gaze. A delight.
1 For his humor
If you had the blues on entering, be sure to leave this exhibition with a smile. Because humor is undoubtedly the most salient feature of Elliott Erwitt’s work. “If my photos allow people to see the world in a certain way, it is certainly to see serious things in a non-serious way“, he acknowledges.
Whether he observes vacationers at the beach or nudists in all latitudes, whether he immortalizes street scenes, animals, or treats buildings like people, his amused, gently ironic gaze on his fellow human beings and on the world, is its trademark. He even manages to keep that smile for austere commissioned work – a chemical company – or in what he calls his “abstractions,” characterless clichés.
Modest, he ensures that it is not he who is funny, but the situations and the reality that are funny. “You just have to know how to seize them”, he said. But if he has an eye for spotting the comical situation, he also knows how to provoke humor. The exhibition is thus punctuated by his self-portraits, each more hilarious than the other – with wigs or in wacky situations -, confirming that the man also has a taste for self-derision pegged to the body.
2 For his dog pictures
Of all the themes, the one that tickles the zygomatic the most is the one devoted to dogs. Man’s best friend is captured with unparalleled naturalness and humor. The Maillol museum has also chosen one of its famous dog photos to illustrate this retrospective: a little doggie wearing a grandmother’s cap, ears erect, held on a leash by a woman of whom we only see the bottom of the coat and the elegant high boots, lower than the pair of incongruous legs of what one guesses are those of a great Dane, who poses at his side.
Elliott Erwitt loves our furry friends and has written several books about them. Yet he hadn’t thought particularly of photographing dogs. It was only when looking at his negatives after years of activity that he realized that he had photographed a lot of them, as he recounts in Dog Dogs. He then began to notice them and photograph them more carefully. Either he makes dogs the equal of humans – a dog trained on his hind legs, as if leaning on the bar with his masters – or he frames at the height of a canine, at ground level, offering an offbeat point of view on humanity .
To photograph these charming creatures, Elliott Erwitt has a secret weapon: he barks, creating an effect of surprise. Often, the animal jumps and it earns him a good photo. Another trick: the horns, of which he has several copies, which also work to attract the attention of humans and lighten the atmosphere, are unstoppable in making the ears of pooches prick up. The latter are in his eyes remarkable models. “Dogs are amazing people. They are charming and above all they do not require prints“, he says in a video at the expo.
3 For the tremendous diversity of his work
Elliott Erwitt has done it all. Instant and intimate photographer, accomplished photojournalist, renowned advertising photographer, architectural photographer, fashion photographer, he is also a freelance director. The route of the exhibition is divided into ten themes defined by Erwitt himself, which range from couples to children, and from beaches to cities, which makes it possible to embrace all of his work and its different angles. ‘approach.
If he has a lot of humor, Elliott Erwitt also knows how to approach intimacy with grace. The photo as he says of “my first cat, my first wife and my first child“, taken on a bed at his home in New York in 1953, in a magnificent chiaroscuro, takes a soft and tender look at this trinity. This shot, spotted very early on by Edward Steichen, director of the MOMA photo department, launched his There is also a photograph of Robert Frank and Mary Frank dancing entwined in a vibrant pas de deux of infinite sweetness, captured in their small kitchen in 1952.
On the top floor, in the space devoted to women, the poignant photograph of Jackie Kennedy, very dignified while a few tears are discreetly crushed on her veil, at the funeral of her husband John F. Kennedy, or the mother of Robert Capa collapsed on the grave of his son in 1954, still testify to his ability to grasp serious subjects with sensitivity. He also knows how to confuse and interrogate, like in this photo of a little black Pittsburgh boy flipping a toy gun to his own temple. Finally, he is a portraitist celebrated for his shots of personalities, from Nixon and Khrushchev to Che, without forgetting Marilyn or Obama.
4 To be amazed in black and white and in color
For his personal work, Elliott Erwitt has always favored black and white, only using color for commissioned work, if required. “He considers black and white to be the true essence of photography, which is composition, light and framing.“, told us his assistant Mio Nakamura. “Black and white synthesizes what he sees. Color is more descriptive, it adds distraction.”
Yet his color images, a lesser-known aspect of his work, are as powerful and mischievous, beautifully framed and composed, as those in black and white. Erwitt also always has two cameras on him, a Leica for the professional aspect, and a Rolleiflex for the artist on the lookout. Of the 220 photos presented at the Maillol Museum, a third are in color. They are gathered on the ground floor, at the end of the route.
5 For his joker spirit
Elliott Erwitt has another peculiarity: he refuses to explain his work. He regrets that visitors to exhibitions are more interested in the explanatory labels than in the works, which explains why the labels are so little talkative at the Maillol museum. “I want people to react emotionally to my photos, not with the brain“, he says. Certainly, his photos speak for themselves. However, in the album of this prankster, vagueness often reigns between snapshots and stagings.
So one of his most iconic photos, that of the romantic kiss in the rearview mirror in California (above), looks extremely polished. Yet it is a photo seized on the fly of a couple of his acquaintance who kissed in a car. Conversely, this image of a father and his son, wearing berets, seized on a bicycle on a road in Provence, with two baguettes of bread attached horizontally to the back, which one would swear came out of a film by Cartier-Bresson or Willy Ronis, is in reality the result of a careful staging supposed to attract American tourists to France.
For him, manufacturing benefits from keeping its mysteries: “The contact sheets must remain as confidential as the words exchanged at the psychoanalyst or in the confessional“, he says. Anyway, leaving the exhibition, the tender and mocking gaze of Elliott Erwitt, his exceptional attention to detail, accompany us for a moment. We would dream of being able to retain much more for a long time to come this singular vision, fresh and new, of our fellow human beings and of everything that surrounds us.
Elliott Erwitt retrospective at the Maillol Museum until August 15, 2023
61, rue de Grenelle 75007 Paris
Tel: 33 (0) 1 42 22 25 44
Every day from 10:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., evening every Wednesday until 10 p.m.
Prices: 16.50 euros (check the website for reduced prices)