Elliott Erwitt: capturing the moment

A pillar of the venerated Magnum agency, US photographer Elliott Erwitt who has died aged 95 became world renowned for catching the humorous details of daily life, in black and white.

Two lovers embracing in a rearview mirror in “California Kiss”, and Marilyn Monroe’s white dress blowing up over a New York subway grate, are among his most famous images.

Politicians, film stars, couples, children, and hundreds of dogs — Erwitt immortalized them all over a seven-decade career.

“The kind of photography I like to do, capturing the moment, is very much like that break in the clouds. In a flash, a wonderful picture seems to come out of nowhere,” he wrote in 1996 in his book, “Between the Sexes”.

Pillar of Magnum agency

Born on July 26, 1928, in Paris to Russian parents, Erwitt grew up in Milan before emigrating in 1939 to the US with his family just before World War II broke out.

After 10 years in New York, he moved to Los Angeles, where he started to learn photography. He was taken on as a printer in a laboratory specializing in portraits of stars.

Erwitt was conscripted to the army in 1951 as an assistant photographer and continued working for several publications while stationed in New Jersey, Germany, and France.

After his military service in 1953 one of his mentors, renowned photojournalist Robert Capa, recruited him to Magnum.

Erwitt would combine the abilities of its two founders — French humanist photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson and his “decisive moment”, and Capa’s sense of history.

“Erwitt became known for benevolent irony, and for a humanistic sensibility traditional to the spirit of Magnum,” the agency said on its website.

He toured the world several times. It was the golden age of illustrated magazines and he contributed to Collier’s, Look, LIFE, and Holiday.

Some of his many legendary snapshots also include Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Che Guevara in 1964, a GI sticking out his tongue at the height of the Korean War and US Vice President Richard Nixon pointing an angry finger at Russian First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev in 1959.

‘California Kiss’

Erwitt will also be remembered for a snapshot of a veiled Jackie Kennedy at her husband’s JFK’s funeral, a tender private conversation between Erwitt’s wife and baby girl and an old Russian woman in curlers.

But arguably his best known is “California Kiss” in which in one click in 1955 he sums up the optimism offered by the US West Coast.

In the 1970s, he turned to video, making documentaries on subjects ranging widely from Japan and country music to Afghan glassmakers. 

In the 1980s he made 18 comedy and satirical television programmes for the US channel HBO.

Aged 90 in 2018 he published a book on Scotland.

Married four times and father to six children, Erwitt also owned eight dogs.

“Taking pictures of celebrities is exactly like taking pictures of non-celebrities”, he said in “Elliott Erwitt’s Personal Best” in 2006.

“Above all do not be intimidated. Remember that even the most exalted celebrities brush their teeth at night before going to bed.”