Elliott Erwitt: Dogs

Acclaimed photographer Elliott Erwitt, who has a remarkable career spanning seventy years, takes pictures of dogs mainly because he likes them.

“I take a lot of pictures of dogs because I like dogs, because they don’t object to being photographed, and because they don’t ask for prints.” – Elliott Erwitt.

Elliott Erwitt’s career in photography has been defined by an innate sense of composition, skill, and humor. In his multifaceted life, Erwitt has served photographic duties as a drafted military serviceman, as well as a photojournalist for the United States’ historic Farm Security Administration and the iconic MAGNUM photographic agency. At MAGNUM, he worked with then-contemporary legendary photographers Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson while also serving several terms as president of the agency. He has worked as a professional freelance photographer for magazines like Life, Collier’s, and Look, creating six-figure advertising campaigns in the golden age of magazine advertisement and later produced documentaries and comedy films for a major network like HBO.

Elliott Erwitt, Paris, France, 1957

Notable throughout Erwitt’s career is his unwavering attachment to dogs. From 1974 to 2008, Elliott Erwitt published five books on the subject of dogs. This recurring emphasis on canines from around the world underscores that Erwitt is, in fact, like many of us, a lover of dogs, but one with a gifted eye for capturing them on film.

For the son of Russian émigrés, who was born in Paris, raised in Milan, and fled to the US by way of France, Elliott Erwitt has developed a keen sense of observation. Living in New York at the age of 11 and then Los Angeles by the age of 16, this early introduction to a multitude of cultures and, most significantly, of the often-tumultuous changes in life gave Erwitt an exposure to the real conditions of the working class, making him a powerful witness of human nature. For Erwitt, dogs became a universal constant, as observers of our world being observed themselves behind the lens of Erwitt.

But what is it about dogs that we love so much? Is there a hidden science behind our love for dogs, or is it simply learned behavior affected by society and culture? In 2018, TIME magazine published, Why Dogs and Humans Love Each Other More Than Anyone Else, writing:

“What began as a mutual-services contract between two very different species became something much more like love… Love rarely touches the reasoning parts of the brain. It touches the dreamy parts, the devoted parts—it touches the parts we sometimes call the heart. For many thousands of years, it’s there that our dogs have lived.”

Elliott Erwitt, Amagansett, New York, 1990
Elliott Erwitt, Amagansett, New York, 1990

Like the people Erwitt captures, dogs are all inherently similar but uniquely different. Wonderfully endearing, his photographs often place dogs as protagonists in their worlds. In one image, Erwitt can capture a moment with a sense of humor and serendipity, ultimately inspiring empathy and tenderness in the viewer. Cute or brutish, small or large, alert or aloof, dogs are intrinsically attached to our modern culture. From street dweller urban pooch, beachcombing dog, curbside car-sitting pup, to the rodeo companion, dogs are as much a part of the picture as the people themselves.

“My attraction to dogs is stirred purely by emotion… For me, the dogs are both an excuse and a reason for taking these pictures. They give me an excuse because they make good subjects. I like them, people want to see them, I can’t resist!” – Elliott Erwitt.

In Erwitt’s photographs, dogs have a remarkable ability to create an empathy in the human psyche. Many of the pictures present dogs experiencing similar situations to those that happen to people: stuck waiting in the car in Paris, France (1957), sitting with friends at the bar in Brussels, Belgium (1957), relaxing on a stoop in New York City, 2000 (Bulldogs), staring out onto the beach in Amangansett, New York (1990) and managing the kiosk with their human companion in Paris, France (1967). These moments remind us that life can be unpredictable and fortuitous for all of us, man or animal.

Elliott Erwitt, New York City, 1974, Dog Legs
Elliott Erwitt, New York City, 1974, Dog Legs

Elliott Erwitt’s “oeuvre” is too large and multifaceted to be hemmed into one category, but if you were to ask Erwitt what body of pictures gives him the most pleasure, it most likely would be his canine portraits. With a body of work including highlights like the image of Nixon and Kruschev in the Kitchen debate (which Nixon used without permission), the photographs considered as outstanding contributions to the New York School of Photography, the social realist documentary photography, or the highly successful commercial photography from the advertising days, Elliott Erwitt has continually and lovingly turned his camera towards dogs.

With a propensity towards sincerity, dogs ironically become the physical extensions of their owners, sometimes even resembling them in appearance. Perhaps, the reason why humans and dogs share such an affectionate bond is that, frankly, they live in total honesty. Scruffy, genuine, and pleased with simplicity, dogs are unapologetically happy to be alive, and Erwitt’s dogs remind us to follow suit.