Among the celebrated photographers of the twentieth century, no other photographer became as well known for their sense of humor and witty images commenting on the world as much as Elliott Erwitt. Often bringing about smiles and sometimes outright laughter in viewers, Erwitt’s images create delightful moments through his visual wit and puns usually joining together seemingly dissimilar elements to make spontaneous flashes of comedy. Creating an informal style that is uniquely his own, Erwitt became an uncanny observer of others. Erwitt once said “You just have to care about what’s around you and have a concern with humanity and the human comedy.” Being highly sensitive and perceptive to the visible surprises in life, Erwitt possesses a deep appreciation of the moment and is skillful at capturing it. Fellow Magnum photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson believed “Elliott has to my mind achieved a miracle working on a chain-gang of commercial campaigns and still offering a bouquet of stolen photos with flavor, a smile from his deeper self.”
Erwitt was born in Paris in 1928 and spent his childhood in Milan before moving to the United States in 1939. The son of Jewish-Russian immigrants, he lived in New York City for two years before attending high school and college in Los Angeles. While in Los Angeles, he was first exposed to photography in a commercial photography studio and then went on to study filmmaking and photography at Los Angeles City College. In 1949, he returned to Europe to further pursue artistic photography where he traveled around France and Italy. In 1951, Erwitt was drafted in the U.S. Army and again took the opportunity to photograph Europe, specifically France and Germany. He eventually returned to New York where he was to settle and met Robert Capa, Edward Steichen, and Roy Stryker who would become guiding mentors for Erwitt. Stryker was the director of the Farm Security Association’s photography department and he hired Erwitt to work on a photography project for Standard Oil. Erwitt would then start a freelance photography career working for such publications as LIFE, Look, and Collier’s. Early in his career, as a young Magnum photographer, he recorded many of the 20th century’s most important events and people such as Marilyn Monroe, Nikita Khrushchev, Richard Nixon, and Che Guevara. Robert Capa would later induct Erwitt into Magnum Photos and Erwitt would also serve as president of the organization for three terms starting in 1968.
Besides being a successful Magnum photographer who is still contributing to the organization, Erwitt is also an accomplished filmmaker and producer. He has made several independent documentaries and produced seventeen programs for HBO. He has personally authored over twenty photography books as well. His work is in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, The Art Institute of Chicago, the Reina Sofia in Madrid, and countless other public and private collections. In 2011, Erwitt was honored with a major retrospective at the Institute of Contemporary Photography in New York and awarded the ICP Infinity Award for Lifetime Achievement.