Elliott Erwitt: finding humor ( and dogs) on the streets

Elliott Erwitt walked the streets looking for the lighter, humorous or ironic side of daily life. He  loved to take pictures of dogs and kids. He was a commercial photographer but in his heart he was an amateur. This was very important to him to the point that he sometimes carried two cameras, one to take pictures for his assignment and one to take pictures for himself.

Elliott Erwitt , New York City, 1988

He was born in Paris in 1928 from Russian parents. He grew up in Italy and France and eventually moved to the United States in 1939. He lived in New York for the most part but when he was drafted by the Army he traveled to different parts of the world.He was influenced by Robert Capa, who was his mentor. He also worked with Edward Steichen and Roy Stryker. Capa encouraged him to join Magnum in 1953 and in 1968 he became the president of the prestigious photographic agency.

“The most interesting picture is the next one’. – Elliott Erwitt.

Elliott Erwitt

Elliott Erwitt

Erwitt took some iconic pictures during his commercial work, some of them by chance like the one of Nixon pointing his index finger at Nikita Khrushchev in a Macy kitchen exhibit at a fair in Moscow in 1959. Ironically, Erwitt was there on a commercial assignment to cover the kitchen. Sometimes is about being in the right place at the right time.

Moscow, 1959. Elliott Erwitt

“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.” – Elliott Erwitt

He loved to take pictures of dogs and he was known to bark at them to get their attention, an act that some would consider setting up the picture.Erwitt emphatically believes that manipulating a picture changes it in a way that is no longer a picture. It is maybe art but not a photograph. And I agree with him. A little correction of exposure ( the old dodging and burning) is acceptable to me but more than that and the reality has been altered. And street photography is about reality.

Dublin, 1962. Elliott Erwitt

Birmingham, 1991. Elliott Erwitt.

“Good photography is not about ‘Zone Printing’ or any other Ansel Adams nonsense. It’s just about seeing. You either see, or you don’t see.” -Elliott Erwitt

Is not really about being a purist but is about how we feel about the photograph’s honesty. When talking about manipulating an image is difficult to define what is acceptable or not, the truth is that is all up to us. And how we feel about it.


5 thoughts on “Elliott Erwitt: finding humor ( and dogs) on the streets

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  2. Hola Juan,

    As you can see, I keep on reading your well thought, educative posts on street photography. I thank you, and appreciate your kind exchange of ideas and concepts, you focus on what matters, which is the philosophy and concept behind street photography instead of writing gear reviews and such. Well done.

    In this case, I will dare to dissent with you, though. I don’t believe photography is about reality. Every decision we make when taking a photograph is a conscious act where we interpret reality according to our personal beliefs, feelings, and even political stance. In that sense, unless we’re photojournalists or we’re making a documentary project, I believe that, as street photographers, we mostly owe to ourselves, to our own vision, not to some hypothetical objective truth (does that even exist?). I don’t care how the street looks like. I care about how it looks like to me.

    Now, that said, I do agree that there are limits and boundaries. Wanna bark at dogs? Do it! It can be playful, and street photography should be playful. The image is no less real in the sense that there are no added or removed elements in post. And that, to me, is the hard limit. I don’t want to create a photoshop collage. I want to make a picture, and accept it as it is. For that reason, I believe that the boundaries remain more or less what could be done in the traditional film darkroom. Dodging, burning, and to some extent cropping. The rest, is up to each photographers’ imagination and ethics.

    Best regards from Montevideo,


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