Elliott Erwitt is freezing.
It’s just after six a.m. on Jan. 20, 2009, the morning of Barack Obama’s inauguration, and Erwitt, the 80-year old photographer who’s captured every president since Harry Truman, is on assignment for Newsweek to cover the day’s festivities. He’s arrived early—the inauguration won’t begin until 10 a.m.—to claim a good spot in the press photographers’ gallery. It is a bitterly cold morning, and like many other photographers covering the event, he’s wrapped in so many layers of clothing he can barely move his arms.
He eventually gets his inauguration image, then goes to his hotel, where he sheds his jumpsuit and jacket, pours himself a small whiskey to warm up, and falls into bed for a nap.
Several hours later he wakes up and packs his gear for his next assignment: a photo of Barack and Michelle Obama at one of the 10 inaugural balls they’ll attend that evening. Washington, D.C., is gridlocked so Erwitt and his assistant walk across town to the Home States Ball at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. He sets up alongside hundreds of other pool photographers.
The second the Obamas arrive on stage, the clicking of camera shutters sounds like a flurry of machine-gun fire. Erwitt slowly raises his Canon EOS Mark II and clicks off one picture. Then another. Then another. He’s finished.
As he lowers his camera to pack it away, his assistant asks, “What are you doing? Are you done?”
“Yeah,” says Erwitt calmly. “I got the shot.”
The picture, which ran in Newsweek, features the Obamas waving at a sea of party goers, each of whom holds up their cellphone to photograph the same moment. It became an instant icon and has remained one of Erwitt’s best-known, most-reprinted images.
“That inauguration ball photo is the perfect illustration of Elliott’s genius,” says Mark Lubell, executive director of the International Center of Photography, a former director of Magnum Photos, and a longtime friend of Erwitt’s.
“Like he has done in so many of his pictures, he has synthesized a moment perfectly and given you its very essence. The image includes not only the historic moment of the inauguration of the first Black president in American history but also powerfully illustrates the country’s new digital age. It is a picture taken by a photographer who has mastered his craft and also had learned to recognize and capture the moment. He got the perfect picture, knew he got it, and then left!”
Looking through Erwitt’s massive catalog of photographs made over more than 70 years, one might think he’s been everywhere and photographed everyone and everything. Really. His iconic photos of Marilyn Monroe, including her famous subway grate pose; the fingerpointing Nixon-Khrushchev Kitchen Debate in Moscow; segregated water fountains; a grieving Jacqueline Kennedy; hundreds of humorous dog images. His work is known the world over.
He has won almost every photography honor, including the Lucie Lifetime Achievement Award, the International Center for Photography’s Infinity Award, and the Royal Photographic Society’s Centenary Medal. One-man shows of his work have been held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, The Art Institute of Chicago, the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., the Paris Museum of Modern Art, the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid, the Barbican in London, and many others. He has published more than 50 (“I’ve lost count,” he jokes) books of his work. The most recent, “Found Not Lost,” is scheduled for release this winter.
Erwitt was born in Paris to Russian parents and after living in Italy immigrated to New York when he was 10 years old. After studying photography at Los Angeles City College, he joined the Army and eventually began a freelance career, taking assignments for magazines such as Collier’s, Look, Life, and Holiday. A meeting in 1954 with Robert Capa led to an invitation to join Magnum, where Capa worked—and for three years headed up the agency—throughout his career. It was during these assignment-packed early years that, as the New Yorker magazine has noted, Erwitt “successfully juggled advertising and fashion jobs while producing some of the most indelible editorial photography of all time.”
Known for consistently excellent work, Erwitt’s photos of everyday life are as legendary as his assigned commercial work. As one writer explained, “Whatever Erwitt is photographing, his images are instantly recognizable by their combination of charm, wit, and melancholy.” Another praised Erwitt for his “pin-sharp sense of compositional timing and an astounding technical fluency.” Fellow photographer—and nonagenarian—Harry Benson says of Erwitt, “He is and always has been so professional and consistent. If I were to be mentioned in the same breath as him, I’d be very happy.”
Throughout his career, Erwitt, now 92, has been able to produce compelling, lasting images in his commercial work as well as in his personal photography. Indeed, Henri Cartier Bresson, one of Erwitt’s early influencers and a founder of Magnum, once said, “Elliott has, to my mind, achieved a miracle working on a chain-gang of commercial campaigns and still offering a bouquet of stolen photos with a flavor, a smile from his deeper self.”
When asked how he has managed to produce such a well-received body of personal work when on assignment for clients, he explains, “I have always brought two cameras; one for the client and one for me ....” According to Mark Lubell, “That’s true but there is more to it than that. Elliott has always been incredibly respectful and thankful for his assignment work because he realized it gave him access to subjects and locations. He always worked hard for his clients.”
Today, Erwitt often explains that photography is his hobby as well as his profession. A hobby, he notes, is something you do because you are dedicated to it. With an impish grin, he adds, “It’s a good thing they use the same materials. That makes it quite convenient.” Ask him how he’s had the time for personal work with so many demanding assignments over the years and he quips, “I use a fast shutter speed.” And why does he love photographing dogs? “They don’t ask for prints.”
Erwitt’s grins, which are at once sly, ironic, and inviting, reflect the humor that is present in much of his work. His witty images have been variously described as “absurdist,” “playful,” “mischievous,” and “ironic.” The New York Times dubbed him “the Henny Youngman of photographic one-liners.” Says Mark Lubell, “Elliott is great at one-liners, and many of his most humorous pictures share that sensibility. And like all of his work, the humorous images also display the way he’s always investigating and observing the world around him.”
Not surprisingly, given his love for comedy, one of Erwitt’s heroes is Charlie Chaplin. He’s too modest to agree that he himself is particularly funny, though. “My ex-wives don’t think I’m funny,” he says. But dig a little deeper and he admits, “Making people laugh is one of the highest achievements you can have. And when you can make them laugh and cry, like Chaplin, that’s the highest of all possible achievements.”
Robert Kiener is a writer in Vermont.