There is a man riding a bicycle on a tree-lined road with a child at the back looking towards the photographer. The image is in black and white and there’s a good chance you’ve seen it reproduced somewhere, maybe a mug, poster, or postcard.
This is just one among many of Elliott Erwitt’s best-known works. His reputation grew in the 21st century, with exhibits staged in his honor, including a large-scale retrospective at the International Center for Photography (ICP) in New York City in 2011.
Erwitt was born to Russian émigrés in Paris on July 26, 1928. When he was young, the family moved to Milan and stayed there during the 1930s. His family moved again to New York City before the outbreak of the Second World War.
Shortly after his parents split up in 1941, Erwitt moved to Los Angeles with his father. At 16, his father moved to New Orleans but he decided to remain in LA to continue high school. This was the time when he started to learn photography on his own, eventually studying it at Los Angeles City College.
In 1948, he moved to New York City where he took up photography and filmmaking at the New School for Social Research. It was in New York where he met Robert Capa, Edward Steichen, and Roy Stryker – his fellow photographers. One of his first photography jobs was an assignment in Pittsburgh (a job which Stryker helped him get) where here was able to produce a photo essay of a post-war American town called Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1950.
Erwitt was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1951 where he served as military photographer while stationed in France and Germany. After two years, he returned to New York City to join the newly established Magnum Photos agency of Capa. He was able to produce some of his best-known work while working for Magnum, including New York City, 1953 (a photo of his first wife and baby daughter) and “Kitchen Debate” (a photo of U.S. President Richard Nixon pointing his index finger at Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s lapel).
Apart from his photojournalism work, Erwitt is also known for the pictures he takes of dogs. He has produced a couple of books featuring his dog photography, including Son of Bitch (1974), Elliott Erwitt: To the Dogs (1992), Dog Dogs (1998), and Elliot Erwitt’s Dogs (2008).
Branching to filmmaking
In the 1970s and 1980s, Erwitt tried his hand at filmmaking, producing such works as Beauty Knows No Pain (a 1971 documentary about an all-female dancing and marching team), Red, White, and Bluegrass (a 1973 piece on musicians performing in North Carolina), and Glassmakers of Herat (a 1977 production that featured the glassmaking practices in Herāt, Afghanistan).
- USA, New York City, 1946
- USA, New York City, 1953
- USSR, Russia, Moscow, Nikita Khrushchev and Richard Nixon, 1959
Erwitt has been honored in exhibitions, including “Elliott Erwitt, Black & White and Kolor” in New Orleans and “Elliott Erwitt: Home Around the World” at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas. He has also been awarded by the Royal Photographic Society with a Centenary Medal and a Lifetime Achievement award by the ICP.