When D&AD chose Elliott Erwitt to give yesterday’s President’s Lecture, they snapped up a photographer of rare wit and talent. Mark Wilson spoke to him

Conceptual photography “bores the shit” out of Elliott Erwitt. He thinks that photographers should loosen up a little and has been known to wear wigs at work, particularly big bushy ones on fashion shoots, to ham up the photographer’s role and “play the game”, as he puts it. His children bought him a baseball cap with a ponytail hanging from the back because it seemed that “ponytails had become standard procedure for photographers”, but the kids had to have the ponytail streaked grey so that it co-ordinated with his natural hair colour. Then it became fashionable to wear the ubiquitous baseball cap the wrong way around. “This made work very difficult,” explains Erwitt.

Erwitt has surely seen it all. With more than 40 years’ experience as one of the world’s leading photographers and as a member and former president of the Magnum photo agency, he was there at John Kennedy’s funeral and captured the arresting image of a grieving Jackie Kennedy. He visited the set of The Misfits and took the memorable picture of Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift and Clarke Gable together, and also took shots of Grace Kelly at her engagement party with Prince Rainier.

Aside from his news and celebrity images, his career as a magazine advertising and portrait photographer has remained buoyant for more than 30 years, with Magnum maintaining a constant trade with his stock images. One of his most recent award-winning advertising commissions was a series of press ads for the London-based agency Lowe Howard-Spink for Tesco. Throughout this time, Erwitt’s production of trademark black and white work has remained prolific, along with numerous exhibitions and the publication of 14 books containing his personal snaps.

Erwitt was born in 1928 in Paris to Russian parents. The family later moved to Milan, although Erwitt has lived in New York since 1939. “When I was young,” he recalls, “I tried to figure out a lifestyle for myself, a way to put food on the table and progress through our vale of tears with minimum pain and effort while staying in charge of my time and independence. I always knew that I couldn’t work for an employer. While going down the alphabetical list of professions, I stopped at photographer, and thought – that’s it. Freelance photography – a deceptively attractive, glamorous profession which requires no training and no special skill other than a certain spirit of adventure and curiosity combined with a skin thick enough to withstand rejection and other forms of humiliating abuse,” he says.

“The successful professional photographer is often a happy person in this world,” he continues. “He pays his bills and can afford to send his children to private schools. Often, when he retires, he has saved enough money to open an antique shop or restaurant.”

After working in a darkroom and spending two years taking pictures, Erwitt met Robert Capa, who had just started to run a “little photo agency” and told Erwitt to look him up in Paris sometime. Stationed in France and nearing the end of a two-year stretch of military service, Erwitt contacted Capa and within 20 minutes of changing into civilian clothing was signed up with the agency as a Magnum photographer. In the late Sixties, he became Magnum’s president for three years and is currently vice-president of the agency’s Tokyo office.

Erwitt seems to embody the best qualities of a freelance photographer. He doesn’t underestimate the importance of meeting clients’ needs, believing that “the profession does require discipline and some respect towards authority”, but he marries this necessary business acumen with “the desire to make a personal statement”.

Erwitt continues: “While a big layout in Italian Vogue may approach a kind of artistic expression and a well done advertising campaign will enrich you and provoke jealousy from your associates, the feeling may persist that you are nothing but a well-paid plumber or a mechanic at the mercy of indifferent editors. And worst of all, that you are easily replaceable. You feel that your inner soul hasn’t been tapped, and that you are not making your contribution towards solving the riddle of human comedy.”

Erwitt’s solution to this human dilemma is “photographic schizophrenia”. By that he means the sharp separation of the two aspects of photographic life – personal and public and professional and amateur. According to Erwitt: “Amateur is a most serious state of being.

Literally, amateur means to love. And when you love, very little else matters. Amateur photography for me is the act of looking, recognising, reacting quickly and organising a picture with the appropriate geometry, which is to say a combination of composition, harmony and balance. With no client looking over my shoulder and no one to answer to. It means taking hundreds of photographs without getting one good one and not worrying about that. It also means trying different ways, taking risks, not being concerned with practical results, and most of all it means following your own photographic nose,” he says.

While professional photography is logical, amateur photography, to Erwitt, is chaotic. “I love both aspects of my photographic dichotomy, and I have navigated happily within them for all my working years,” he says. His personal work consists mainly of atmospheric black and white shots. He prefers monochrome film because it gives him more control. He is very suspicious of darkroom trickery and image manipulation techniques, believing that these techniques take away the credibility of the photographs.

A fascination with dogs stems from his belief that our furry four-legged friends are “essentially people”. “But if I really took pictures of people doing the things that dogs do, I’d get into trouble”, he explains. Neither would Erwitt turn down a strange work request for a commissioned dog calendar, for example. “Oh, I’ve done loads of dog calendars. I like silly requests because they put you more in contact with interesting situations,” he explains.

Looking through Erwitt’s books brings on a strange feeling of déj vu, not in the sense of definitely knowing the pictures, but a feeling of familiarity with the idea, the essence of the photographs. This is due to many things – his images have had a lot of exposure, he is continually “being ripped-off by his fellow photographers”, he says, and he doesn’t have a problem with carrying through the creative idea of one of his “amateur” photographs to a commercial commission. “Why should I? I’m trying to make a living as a professional photographer.” He admits he doesn’t get too upset when his work is copied by an ad agency because then he can “sue and get lots of money”.

Elizabeth Grogan, advertising director at Magnum, believes that many ad agencies are scared to approach the agency with a commission for a photographer of Erwitt’s calibre.

“A lot of people tend to think of Magnum as a bit of an ivory tower,” she says. “They also think that it would be an insult to ask Erwitt to recreate one of his famous images and that he would probably be too expensive. All of which is untrue,” she explains.

Erwitt’s joie de vivre, charm and confidence continue to show through in his work. With three marriages, several children and a romantic European background, he has done his fair share of travelling and living. “He embodies everything that people love about his work – wit, humour and magic,” Grogan explains.

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