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Renowned Photographer Elliott Erwitt Dies at Age 95 after Transforming Everyday Moments into Art

Elliott Erwitt, a highly regarded photojournalist and commercial photographer known for his ability to capture mundane scenes of life and transform them into thought-provoking, humorous, or captivating moments, passed away at the age of 95 on November 29 at his Manhattan home. Magnum Photos, with whom Erwitt had a more than six-decade association, including a three-year tenure as the agency’s president in the 1960s, announced his death.

Credit: DepositPhotos

Throughout his seven-decade career, Erwitt demonstrated a mastery of what his mentor, Henri Cartier-Bresson, referred to as the “decisive moment.” He had a keen eye for uncovering the extraordinary in the ordinary and transforming it into compelling works of art.

Erwitt’s work encompassed both journalism and art, as he contributed to Magnum and popular magazines such as Life, Newsweek, Collier’s, and Look during the 1950s. Despite the digital age, Erwitt remained a proponent of black-and-white film and dual careers.

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During his photo shoots, Erwitt carried two cameras—one for his assignments and one for personal photography. He believed that his paid professional work was simply a means to support his true passion.

Among his photographic obsessions was his fascination with dogs, which he depicted in comically unlikely situations. For instance, one of his notable photographs shows a dog seated in the driver’s seat of a Renault on a Paris street, gazing casually towards the camera.

Cartier-Bresson praised Erwitt’s ability to balance his commercial campaigns with stolen moments in his photography, describing it as a “miracle.” Erwitt approached his personal projects with boundless enthusiasm, wandering through capital cities and distressed communities worldwide, pausing to capture images that caught his instinctual eye.

His photographs range from a young French boy in a beret happily sitting on a bicycle between two baguettes and his father to an African American child in 1950 Pittsburgh, smiling while holding a toy gun to his head.

Erwitt’s journalistic and commercial work allowed him to cross paths with numerous celebrities including Frank Sinatra, Muhammad Ali, and Simone de Beauvoir. He sought moments of intimacy and immediacy in their less-guarded states.

For example, his 1956 photograph of Marilyn Monroe depicts her as a thoughtful actress engrossed in reading a script, rather than as a caricatured sex symbol or tragic figure.

In 1964, Erwitt captured iconic portraits of Fidel Castro and fellow revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara as they strolled through the streets of Havana, highlighting their charismatic personalities. Reflecting back, Erwitt described Castro as photogenic with a cowboy-like quality, while Che was busy promoting the Cuban example to other countries.

Photographing these figures was surprisingly easy, as they were willing subjects. Erwitt mused that photographing stars was often easier than capturing other subjects.

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Throughout his career, Erwitt bore witness to some of the twentieth century’s defining moments armed with his Rolleiflex portrait camera and versatile Leica Rangefinder.

Notably, he documented pre-civil-rights-era America in several poignant images. One photograph shows a young Black man in North Carolina drinking from a dingy water fountain next to a sparkling fountain designated for Whites only.

In 1957, Erwitt even traveled to the Soviet Union to photograph the launch of Sputnik and was the sole Western photographer present at the 40th anniversary of the Russian Revolution in Moscow.

He became an accredited photographer during President John F. Kennedy’s White House and captured a striking portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy at her husband’s funeral in 1963, conveying deep grief in her expression.

Credit: DepositPhotos

In 1959, Erwitt famously photographed Vice President Richard M. Nixon pointing his finger at Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s burly chest during the 1959 American industrial exhibition in Moscow.

Known as the “Kitchen Debate,” the encounter became emblematic of Nixon’s bold stance against communism, although Erwitt was disheartened when Nixon later used the photo in his unsuccessful presidential campaign.

Despite his extensive travels, one of Erwitt’s most celebrated photographs was taken at home. The grainy 1953 image, captured with minimal window light, depicts Erwitt’s wife, Lucienne, admiring their sleeping six-day-old baby, Ellen, on their bed. Erwitt considered it nothing more than a family photo, but the image gained recognition after being included in Edward Steichen’s best-selling book “Family of Man” in 1954 and the subsequent photography exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art the following year.

Thanks to the popularity of this image, several prints helped support his children’s education over the years. Erwitt received numerous accolades throughout his life, including the International Center of Photography’s lifetime achievement award.

Erwitt occasionally criticized the pretentiousness and artificiality present in fashion and art photography. To make his point, he created an alter ego named André S. Solidor, a self-important French photographer—a pun on solid door—to publish a book filled with gratuitous nudity and meaningless imagery, including a fish head smoking a cigar.

In his work, Erwitt often defied conventional ideas of photography, paying little attention to sharp focus, composition, or the image-enhancing possibilities in the darkroom. His photographs, often flat, grainy, and uncropped, may appear rushed or imperfect to the untrained eye.

However, his images possess an incredible vitality and capture moments of unmistakable humanity, even with perceived flaws such as out-of-focus shots or a subject with a partially chopped-off head.

Erwitt published his final book, “Found, Not Lost,” in 2021 at the age of 93, showcasing his continued passion for photography even in his later years.

Born in Paris on July 26, 1928, to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents, Erwitt’s original name was Elio Romano Erwitz. His father worked as an architect, and his mother came from a prominent merchant family in Moscow.

The family resided in Milan until they fled from Benito Mussolini’s anti-Semitic laws in 1938 and arrived in New York at the beginning of World War II. Shortly after their arrival, Elliot, as he came to be known, moved to Los Angeles with his father, who had transitioned to selling watches.

It was during his time at Hollywood High School that Erwitt received his first camera and began capturing photographs around his neighborhood during the war years.

When Erwitt was 15, his father left him, leaving him to fend for himself. Despite this, Erwitt expressed no bitterness towards his father, whom he described as a “wonderful man” who later pursued photography himself, stating that he wanted to follow in his son’s footsteps.

While in high school, Erwitt earned money by photographing weddings and pursued formal photography education at Los Angeles City College. Following that, in 1948, he returned to New York and attended photography and filmmaking classes at what is now the New School for Social Research.

Fluent in four languages, Erwitt traveled to Europe in 1949 to further develop his craft. Upon returning to the United States, he joined photographer Roy Stryker at Standard Oil Co. of New Jersey to assist with documenting the revitalization of Pittsburgh.

Erwitt’s work on this project resulted in his first significant photo essay, but he was drafted into the Army Signal Corps for the Korean War and served as a photographer in France and Germany.

In 1953, Capa recruited Erwitt to join Magnum Photos. It was during this period that Erwitt married Lucienne Van Kan. The marriage ended in divorce, as did his subsequent marriages to Diana Nugent, Susan Ringo, and Pia Frankenberg.

From his first marriage, Erwitt had four children named Ellen, Misha, David, and Jennifer Erwitt. He also had two children, Sasha and Amelia, from his third marriage. Additionally, he had ten grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, with four of his children working in some capacity in the field of photography.

Erwitt’s association with Magnum provided a steady stream of assignments, but he also ventured into lucrative advertising photography.

He frequently worked on movie sets as a commercial photographer and was among the photographers who captured the famous image of Marilyn Monroe above the subway grate in “The Seven Year Itch” (1955). During the filming of “The Misfits,” Erwitt photographed Monroe as she battled depression and drug addiction while her marriage to Arthur Miller crumbled.

Erwitt’s preference for comedic moments over dramatic ones is evident in his work. He created a documentary film titled “Beauty Knows No Pain” (1972), which satirically examines a majorette drill team in Texas.

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