Erwitt, A Visual Comedian

Elliott Erwitt, the American documentary photographer who has had a substantial impact on contemporary photography, is best known for the offbeat humor in his pictures. With a humanist approach to photography, his best-known images present the viewer candid and often playful scenes.

The Early Years

Elliott Erwitt was born in Paris in 1928, and spent his childhood in Milan, before moving to the US in 1942. His earliest interest in photography sparked in Hollywood and later matured during the 1950s, where he photographed subjects for the Army in Germany and France. Erwitt’s work appeared in major US magazines throughout the 50s and 60s, and his connections with other master photographers such as Edward Steichen, Robert Capa and Rob Stryker allowed him further entré in the world of photography.


He started publishing his work through Magnum Photos, eventually becoming the president of the agency in 1966 where he served under the title for the next three years. Erwitt’s bright sense of adventure and spontaneity has allowed him to create masterful pictures in terms of meaning and composition, allowing his artistic journey to be one of the longest spanning photographic careers of the 20th century.

Letting Curiosity Lead the Way

Elliott Erwitt has always believed that “when a photograph happens, it comes easily, as a gift that should not be questioned or analyzed.” Indeed, Erwitt’s photographs of musings on daily life often reveal the most elemental and universal candid human emotions and actions. A flaneur by nature, Erwitt’s own process of capturing a photograph is as easy going as his photographs feel. He usually wanders around without a specific location in mind, letting his curiosity lead the way.

“The kind of photography I like to do,” says Erwitt, “is very much like that break in the clouds. In a flash, a wonderful picture seems to come out of nowhere.”

An Instinctive Photographer

Erwitt is an instinctive photographer; his pictures are reactions to the things he sees, instead of specific orchestrations of a planned composition. His ‘see – feel – snap’ style often adds a touch of humor and irony to the photographs, combined with a heightened level of graphic sensibility.

Erwitt Across the Globe

Traveling is an essential aspect of the kind of photography Elliott Erwitt is fond of. Some of his most well-known images were created while traveling across the globe. Provence, for example, dated 1955 and employed by the French Tourist Board, is surely considered one of his iconic photographs.

Elliott Erwitt, Provence, France, 1955, Silver Gelatin Photograph
Elliott Erwitt, Provence, France, 1955, Silver Gelatin Photograph

A Quintessential French Moment

The picture shows a beret sporting man and a child in Provence, south-eastern France, with two baguettes balanced on the back of a bicycle. This quintessentially French moment presents the viewer a certain joie de vivre. Erwitt captures the feeling of escape and the essence of southern France on an easy spring day in one single snapshot.

Coincidental and Spontaneous Genius

The image was so accurately an expression of the geography that the French Tourist Board used it to advertise the country’s appeal. Provence strikes the viewer as it provides both content and form, without being staged. The subjects in the picture, for example, are centrally positioned, which cuts the frame in half. The two berets, on the other hand, are pointing towards opposite directions which, quite humorously create a zigzag within the frame. It is Erwitt’s coincidental and spontaneous genius which allows him to capture such detailed, natural moments from the very heart of everyday life.

Elliott Erwitt, Provence, France, 1955, Archival Pigment Photograph
Elliott Erwitt, Provence, France, 1955, Archival Pigment Photograph

The Importance of Timelessness

Erwitt also often comments on the importance of timelessness within a photograph where he says;

‘If your subjects are eternal…they’ll survive. If they’re good enough, if they’re not dated, they will survive.’

Such is the case for the two subjects as well as the overall setting and feeling that exudes in Provence. Both the child and the man’s clothes are classically effortless, presenting a timeless French style which we would still easily come across on the streets today.  The child’s mischievous smirk in juxtaposition with the man’s unaware state further enhances the playful, human and timeless nature of the image.

A Moment in Motion

Provence also displays a moment in motion where the two subjects are on the move on a bicycle. The road ahead seems to give no hints of a specific destination. The light and easy feeling of the picture allows certain elements to be left to the imagination, allowing the viewer to dream and even hope.

A Breath of Freshness for the World of Photography

Elliott Erwitt, one of the greatest image makers of his generation, has created (and still continues to do so) numerous photographs with his observant and curious eye that are studied by photography historians today. His humor, spontaneity, and sharp wit became a breath of freshness for the world of photography when Erwitt rose to prominence during the 1950s. His warn and human approach to the medium allows him to create life-filled, ironically beautiful photographs.

‘Pictures are a comedy so charming that in order to enjoy it we need not to think about how it was accomplished.’ says Erwitt on his philosophy of photography.

An International Legacy

Having produced more than twenty books and honored in exhibitions and collections by major institutions such as the Smithsonian, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Art Institute of Chicago, Erwitt is currently based in New York City. He has received the Infinity Award for Lifetime Achievement by the International Center of Photography in 2011. Erwitt’s photographic work is widely respected, taught and studied in academics, and continues to be a crucial influence for the young generation of photographers today. For Erwitt a great picture is unforced, unpredictable, and is free from the constraints of time and place.