I was privileged to sit in the front row on Thursday at Elliott Erwitt’s presentation to the Austin Center of Photography, of which I am a founder’s member.

Erwitt is a world famous photographer and is perhaps best known for his images of dogs (see below). However, his career over the last half century has encompased an amazing array of photographs, including the first images of Soviet nuclear missiles on parade, the Kennedy Whitehouse, and a plehtora of images from countries around the world taken at a time when it was very difficult to get into many of them.

He showed a number of pictures from Shanagarry and Ballycotton in Ireland and mentioned that Ireland was perhaps his favorite place to photograph. Afterwards I talked to him – knowing exactly where these very small Irish towns are, we got talking about Ballymaloe, a local iconic hotel and cooking school and Stephen Pierce pottery. Turns out Stephen Pierce is a friend of his, and I used to sell some of his wares when I worked at the Kilkenny Design Center one summer during college.

Erwitt has a great sense of humor, both verbally and in his photos. He is incredibly sharp, and certainly doesn’t seem like someone who is in his eighties. Erwitt talked about being a professional photographer, that is, someone who does advertising and other paid work, and photography being his hobby, i.e. someone who loves to take pictures for their own sake. Most of his “fine art” photos, which is what he showed, fall into this latter category. Indeed he talked about how he would be sent on a professional assignment and after getting “the shot” he would take the opportunity to do his own photos while taking advantage of traveling on his client’s nickel.

Many of Erwitt’s photos have an ironic humor and compare or juxtapose two or more elements with each other. For instance consider the photo to the left of a french poodle at the UK dog show Cruft’s.

But his work also has a serious side. One image in particular that jumped out at me was “Boy with Gun, Pittsburgh 1950”, which brought up a question from the audience about whether or not the photo was intended to be humorous. Erwitt said no. To me, the image is reminiscent of Diane Arbus’s “Boy with Toy Hand Grenade, Central Park 1962”. Both contrast tools of war with the innocence of childhood. But in Erwitt’s image, I could not help wonder was this playfulness or a self commentary by the boy about how he felt growing up at time of greater racial tension.

Erwitt is still taking photos, as evidenced by an image (his only color image of the night) of the Obama convention with most of the crowd taking their own photos of the event.

I wish him good health and many more years of creating intriguing and funny imagery.

More of his Elliot’s work can be seen at :
http://www.elliotterwitt.com/lang/index.html

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