Elliott Erwitt, original name in full Elio Romano Erwitz, (born July 26, 1928, Paris, France), French-born American photographer and filmmaker who is known for his uncanny ability to capture on film the humour and irony of everyday life.
Erwitt (whose family members had changed their surname when they arrived in the United States) was born to Russian émigrés living in Paris. The family moved to Milan when Erwitt was young and lived there throughout the 1930s. They immigrated to New York City just days before the outbreak of World War II. In 1941, after his parents separated, Erwitt moved to Los Angeles with his father. When Erwitt was just 16 years old, however, his father moved to New Orleans, leaving Erwitt on his own. He continued to attend high school and began teaching himself photography. To earn money, Erwitt hired himself out as a wedding photographer. He studied photography at Los Angeles City College and in 1948 moved to New York City, where he took photography and filmmaking classes at the New School for Social Research (now The New School) until 1950. In New York Erwitt met photographers Edward Steichen, Roy Stryker, and Robert Capa. Stryker got him a job documenting Pittsburgh, which resulted in Erwitt’s first significant photo essay (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1950).
After military service as a photographer in France and Germany from 1951 to 1953, Erwitt returned to New York City, joined Capa’s recently established Magnum Photos agency, and launched a successful career that encompassed commercial, journalistic, editorial, and personal photography. In 1955 his photo New York City, 1953, an image of his first wife and his six-day-old daughter, was included in the landmark exhibition “The Family of Man” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and it has since become one of the most iconic images from that show. In the 1950s Erwitt traveled to Moscow twice. On his first trip he documented the 40th anniversary of the October Revolution (1957). During his second trip he took one of his best-known photographs, which shows Pres. Richard Nixon pointing an accusatory finger at the lapel of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev during what later was dubbed the “Kitchen Debate” (1959).
Erwitt was hired through Magnum to document film production on sets for movies such as On the Waterfront (1955) and The Seven Year Itch (1954), at which he captured iconic images of Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe, respectively. Throughout the rest of the decade and into the 1960s, Erwitt continued to have access to the world’s notable figures, photographing Jacqueline Kennedy, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Jack Kerouac, and many more.
Erwitt branched into filmmaking in the 1970s and ’80s. His films include Beauty Knows No Pain (1971), a documentary that profiles an all-female dancing and marching team; Red, White, and Bluegrass(1973), which features performances of musicians in North Carolina; and Glassmakers of Herat (1977), a film that explores the glassmaking practices in Herāt, Afghanistan. Erwitt also produced numerous programs and movies for HBO in the 1980s, including The Great Pleasure Hunt, a series of comedic travel documentaries from the perspective of pleasure seekers.
In addition to his photojournalism, Erwitt became well known for his photographs of dogs and in 1974 published his first book of dogs, titled Son of Bitch. In the 1990s and 2000s he published three more books on the subject—Elliott Erwitt: To the Dogs (1992), Dog Dogs (1998), and Elliot Erwitt’s Dogs(2008).
Erwitt is the man behind some of the most oft-reproduced photographs. Many of them are so ubiquitous, appearing in advertisements and on posters, mugs, and postcards, that they often are no longer identified as his, such as Provence, France, 1955, the image of a man, wearing a beret, riding his bicycle down the road ahead while perched on the back are two long baguettes and a child looking back at the photographer over his shoulder. In the 21st century, Erwitt’s reputation has grown, and he has been recognized with numerous exhibitions, notably a large-scale retrospective in 2011, “Elliott Erwitt: Personal Best,” at the International Center for Photography (ICP), New York City. He also received the ICP Infinity Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2011.