Commenting on the World Through Humor and Witt

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. He is highly sensitive and perceptive to the visual surprises in life and is especially beloved for his lighthearted photographs of dogs that often mimic humans and their emotions. Always employing his wit, Erwitt remarked on the advantages of dog models saying that they were cheaper than hired humans, often more attractive, more distinctive than humans, and indifferent to fashion trends. 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.”

Elliott Erwitt, New York City, 1974 (dog legs), 1974, Printed Later, Silver Gelatin Photograph

New York City, 1974 (dog legs)

On one occasion for an advertisement for boots, Erwitt used a Great Dane and a Chihuahua hired from an agency. Dogs were ideal for shoe advertisements because they would often take a person’s eye down to foot level. In the renowned image “New York City, 1974 (Dog Legs),” perhaps second and third looks are needed to understand the whole picture. The first element noticed is the Chihuahua to the right, wearing a ridiculous little knit beret and looking back at the camera with a look of bewilderment. The dog is so little that the black boots of its owner, to the dog’s right, seem like those of a giant. Finally to the left is Erwitt’s punch line: the relatively enormous paws and legs of a Great Dane. The purpose of almost all of his pictures, with or without dogs, is to elicit commentary. In this case he humorously comments on humans and dogs, big and small. Erwitt once said:

“You just have to care about what’s around you and have a concern with humanity and the human comedy.”

Over 70 Years of Photographing

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 immigrants, Erwitt, lived in NYC 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. Then he went on to study filmmaking and photography at Los Angeles City College. In 1949, he returned to Europe to 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.

During an interview we conducted with Erwitt, we asked what it is about photography that has kept him interested and working consistently for so many years. He answered:

“Essentially that it is my hobby, and the need to adapt to the inevitable changes in life and work.”

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