People & Place

Rob Townsend's OCA Learning Log

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Photographer: Elliott Erwitt

Ways of seeing

It took me a few readings of Susan Sontag’s On Photography  [1] before I really started thinking differently about photography, but the single biggest revelation for me was this: Sontag points out that when you admire the work of a particular photographer, you’re admiring the way they see the world, and the photos themselves are simply the physical manifestation of that way of seeing.

Elliott Erwitt

Elliott Erwitt

The photographer whose ‘way of seeing’ I have come to admire the most in recent months – in particular since starting on People & Place – is Elliott Erwitt. Although I was aware of one or two of his most famous images, my interest was actually piqued earlier this year when in a short space of time I read some of his comments on photography that accompanied a project he did on Scotland [2] and then heard an interview with him on my favourite podcast, The Candid Frame [3]. Some of the things he said struck a chord with me, and in the audio interview he came across as very modest, affable and an all-round nice guy. These things made me curious to see more of his work – hoping his personality and viewpoint would translate into his photographs. And I wasn’t disappointed at all.


Elliott Erwitt, 'Snaps'

Elliott Erwitt, ‘Snaps’

After a little research I bought ‘Snaps’ [4], a 500+ page retrospective of Erwitt’s work, mostly his personal rather than professional photography. It’s probably the best £22 I’ve spent since I got into photography – it’s amazing value for the quality and the quantity of photographs.

As a career-spanning retrospective there is always the risk that there is a lack of cohesion – it’s the Greatest Hits, not that one Classic Album. It spans several decades and is rather loosely organised into single-word verb titles – Read, Rest, Touch, Move, Tell, Point, Stand, Look, Play – making it seem very eclectic, disjointed even, on first reading. But looking at a chapter at a time you do start to see the connections, the rhythms in what he sees and how he sees it. My understanding of Erwitt’s personal work is that he doesn’t work to self-imposed projects, he just shoots what he sees that will make a good photo. His themed collections are in fact the results of his poring over his ‘inventory’ after the event, often many years after.

While his style remains distinctive, one of the lasting observations is of the sheer variety of his subjects; there are a handful of what you might consider classic (or cliché) ‘city street photography’ shots but they are outnumbered massively by a bewildering variety of subjects that he has managed to not just point his camera at, but make a great photo out of.

He’s rightly well-known for the humour in his work; the most common response I had as a pored over the images was a smile, occasionally an out-loud laugh. He has a knack of isolating the absurd moments that permeate life, and does so without judgement but with warmth and empathy. He spots visual puns, moments of interaction between people, gestures and stances of blissfully unaware individuals – and positions himself perfectly to frame the moment.

The other admirable skill of his is the ability to imply a whole narrative with a single shot. In his best storytelling shots you can see the past and the future, all embedded in the one frozen moment. The best example of both the humour and the storytelling – and probably my favourite photo in the book – is of the wedding party in Bratsk, Siberia in 1967. The self-satisfied contemplation of the bad lad on the left, the leaning-away stance of the hapless-looking groom, the daggers in the eyes of the furious bride, the concerned friend leaning in… it’s easy to imagine the whole story that wraps around this one picture.

Bratsk wedding, 1967 by Elliott Erwitt

Bratsk wedding, 1967 by Elliott Erwitt

There’s only one discordant note in the whole book – a few pages of commissioned portraits: white background, Avedon/Bailey-style. While Erwitt does excellent portraits, his best ones are natural, environmental portraits with a real informal quality to them. The posed portrait series sticks out like a sore thumb and serves to remind how his naturalistic style is what’s great about him and rightly dominates 99% of the book.

The wisdom of Elliott Erwitt

A few of the things he’s said that have really resonated with me, and sum up pretty well why I like the way he sees:-

“To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place… I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.”

“You can find pictures anywhere. It’s simply a matter of noticing things and organizing them. You just have to care about what’s around you and have a concern with humanity and the human comedy.”

“The work I care about is terribly simple. I observe. I try to entertain. But above all I want my pictures to be emotional. Little else interests me in photography.”

“All the technique in the world doesn’t compensate for the inability to notice.”

“The whole point of taking pictures is so that you don’t have to explain things with words.”

“I don’t believe that photography can change the world, but it can show the world changing.”

“It’s about time we started to take photography seriously and treat it as a hobby.”

  1. Sontag, S. (1979) On Photography. London: Penguin
  2. Masters of Photography. [accessed 23/06/2014]
  3. The Candid Frame (podcast) [accessed 23/06/2014]
  4. Erwitt, E. (2010) Snaps. London: Phaidon

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Documentary: Everybody Street

I subscribe to an excellent podcast called The Candid Frame [1] that features hour-long interviews with photographers, and recently listened to an episode dedicated to photographer and filmmaker Cheryl Dunn, who has directed a fantastic documentary on New York street photography called ‘Everybody Street’ [2]. It inspired me to seek out the film itself, which I’ve just finished watching.

Everybody Street

Everybody Street

It’s made up of interviews with contemporary photographers, plus some old hands from years gone by (including a sprightly 98-year-old, Rebecca Lepkoff, active since the 1940s), mixed in with art historians waxing lyrical about legendary practitioners no longer with us.

It serves to illustrate the extremely broad church that is “street photography”, even in a city like New York where the cliché of the gritty black-and-white street aesthetic was made famous. Yes, there’s a lot of the ‘classic’ (/cliché) street style but looking closer you see much variation and originality:

  • From very broad ‘anything goes’ subject matter – whatever was happening on the street (Joel Meyerowitz, Elliott Erwitt, Jeff Mermelstein)…
  • … to very specific projects (Bruce Davidson and subways; Boogie and gangs; Jill Freedman and cops/firemen; Martha Cooper and graffiti artists)
  • From very serious subject matter (social injustice – Clayton Patterson, Helen Levitt, Jamel Shabazz)…
  • … to very humorous (Erwitt I was already a fan of, but the revelation here was Mermelstein – some really lovely work)
  • From deliberately requested and posed portraits (Patterson, Shabazz, Mary Ellen Mark)…
  • … to the frankly obnoxious in-your-face style of Bruce Gilden

I warmed to some photographers much more than others – just seeing his photos beforehand had made me think that Gilden’s style wasn’t for me, but to see him in practice confirmed my worst suspicions – he really does stick the camera and flash right up in people’s faces without warning. I’m not surprised he gets into altercations now and again – he deserves it! Ricky Powell came across as a bit of a loud character, a bit stereotypical Noo Yawk for my liking, and his portfolio was a bit celebrity-heavy for what is supposed to be a street photography film.

But these are minor gripes for sure. In all, I found it to be an invigorating, educational and insightful film, and one that I’ll watch again.

I thought it might have been too focused on New York the city and therefore not really connect with me, but thankfully I was  wrong – it’s very much about the photographers and their work, with NYC as their canvas. What they all do with it is actually quite different.

Highly recommended for anyone with an interest in street photography – or even just photography in general. It’s an insight into the minds of an eclectic bunch of photographers. And one of the things about great photographers is that you’re not just admiring the end results of their work – you’re admiring the way they see the world. This film really brought that home to me.

  1. The Candid Frame (podcast) [accessed 16/06/2014]
  2. Everybody Street (film): Dir. Cheryl Dunn [accessed 16/06/2014]