Posts Tagged Elliott Erwitt
In part 1 and part 2 I started on a list of the photographers who have made the greatest influence on successive generations of photojournalists. To recap, this is a start on a “canon” to which you may contribute a suggestion. I’m looking not just for a list of the “great photographers” nor the most famous or successful. I’m looking for photographers who:
- Produced documentary work reflecting the important standards and ethics of the profession,
- Stood the test of time by repeatedly producing notable work, and
- Innovated in the art or profession by being first to adopt an important style or approach, break a barrier or rise above the limits of the day.
Think of who might have been the first to think of something or do something important. That’s a tougher standard than might be immediately apparent.
So let’s wrap this up with a ‘cambrian explosion’ of styles, where the photo essay was codified, scrapped and rearranged in a score of different ways, the portrait took on a whole new meaning(s) and what we reveal of subjects is less rigid. This is a period where photojournalists take the mandate of documenting the world and interpret it personally. This is the toughest list to assemble because the farther you look back, the easier it is to spot the innovators and revolutionaries. Sometimes it takes the length of a career to see what changes or new ideas a photographer brought to the profession. I’ll be conservative in naming people or groups here, but that doesn’t mean you can’t chime in. Drop a name or two in comments, with a few sentences about what he, she or they did to change the face of photojournalism.
Weegee — If being a newspaper or wire photographer was “feeding the machine” as has often been said, Usher (Arthur) Fellig fed it the morsels with the most gristle. As a freelance New York crime photographer in the 1930s and 40s, Fellig earned the nickname “Weegee” for his uncanny ability to beat the cops to a shooting. They assume he had his fingers on a Ouija Board to get there. In reality, he had a police radio in his car with a darkroom in the trunk, lived in the center of the crime in Hell’s Kitchen, and ran on the motivation of a paycheck. He was one of hundreds of Speed-Graphic-wielding freelancers plying the same trade, but Weegee had a rare sense of humor and irony in his images of New York’s underbelly, and Barnum’s penchant for self promotion. He was the star of a particular way of working that still includes many hot-spot-hopping freelancers and wire contributors. But he is the one that got the MOMA and ICP exhibitions, and yes, he would have pointed that out to you.
Magnum Photos — Magnum Photos is not the first photojournalism agency, nor the first group of photographers to coalesce. Magnum changed the idea of the ownership of images, insisting that the copyright of the work remained the photographer’s property. The prominence of the photographers who founded it — Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, David “Chim” Seymour and George Rodger — gave the cooperative and its subsequent members the leverage to change business practices in the profession of photography for the better. It remains the preeminent photojournalism agency, and the style of its members has influenced every subsequent generation of photographers and photojournalists.
W. Eugene Smith — Smith had the news sense of Alfred Eisenstaedt, the understanding of combat of Capa and the technical polish of Walker Evans. He is also our model of obsessive-compulsive, irascible and addicted artist of the real. But his greatest contribution was in the redefinition of the photographic essay. In 1949 he broke with LIFE’s script for a photo essay on a country doctor in Colorado to photograph what he saw (and a little of what he wished to see). That essay and subsequent ones on Dr. Albert Schweitzer and nurse-midwife Maude Callen reshaped the way we approach the long form of photojournalism. An essay on a Spanish Village under fascist rule is arguably the template National Geographic has followed since for covering a place. His last essay on mercury poisoning in Minamata, Japan, is one of the most powerful and complete reportages on the environment ever published. And his failed essay on Pittsburgh at mid century is one of the most beautiful, compelling and epic failures of the profession. He was also a compulsive audio collector, amassing thousands of hours of documentary sound from a New York City loft from the late 1950s to the early 1970s. His personality was a cautionary tale for how to act and how not to act, but his essay work will echo for the foreseeable future.
Robert Frank — While Smith was crafting the public, mainstream photographic essay for LIFE and Magnum Photos, Frank was creating a model of the personal photographic essay. On a Guggenheim grant in 1955, Frank crossed the U.S. photographing the world’s foremost power with the eyes of a foreigner. The Americans was an overtly critical look in the mirror for most Americans and flew directly in the face of Steichen’s contemporaneous Family of Man. Walker Evans was one of the few who saw the value in the images. “It is a far cry from all the woolly, successful ‘photo-sentiments’ about human familyhood,” he wrote. Where Smith’s stories may assemble virtual bullet points in the images chosen, Frank’s are personal, subtle and tease the emotions of the reader. Smith’s images were about the emotions of the subject. Frank’s work has influenced the craft as deeply as Smith’s and his approach has emerged in the work of others from Larry Fink to Danny Lyon, Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, Bruce Davidson and probably you. He is an artist, poet and filmmaker, and says he lost his Leica in 1962 and didn’t mind.
William Klein — If Frank’s work was about the distance and ennui of American society, Klein’s poked your nose and boldly stated that New York is Good and Good For You. His 1956 book by that name grabbed you by the shirt and dragged you into the streets of the city at close range, with very wide-angle lenses in a way that wouldn’t let you escape. Klein took that energy into the fashion world where he and a few others created the look of fashion images in the 1960s.
Elliot Erwitt — I once sat at JFK with a fresh copy of Erwitt’s Personal Exposures catching the annoyed glances of fellow air travelers because I could not contain the out-loud laughs as I paged through the book. As a journalist Erwitt is incisive, catching one of the iconic moments of the Cold War among others. But he is most notable for an irrepressible humor in his images that has never — to my knowledge at least — been matched by anyone. His work is a stream of dry and witty jokes, slapstick humor and uncanny timing.
Ron Galella — In class I often ask new students if they would consider the paparazzi to be journalists. There is no genre of documentary photography more maligned than those who chase celebrity the way Weegee chased murders, and the students’ responses reflect that viscerally. But if the moment be real, I argue, what’s the difference? The idea of doing it still makes my skin crawl, but I have to admit that it is the journalism of the low-brow we all crave from time to time. The granddaddy of these used-car-salesmen of the profession is Ron Galella, the paparazzo who would not let Jackie O out of his sight, resulting in lengthy legal battles. In one case he was given a requirement to stay 150 feet away from his favorite subject. The second required him to stop photographing her for life. Marlon Brando punched him in Chinatown. Sure, there were celebrity-following camera jockeys long before him and will be as long as there are celebrities. But Galella took dauntless obsession and anything-for-the-shot to new heights (or should that be depths?).
Josef Koudelka — There are a few regions where reality and magic blend in the eyes of artists and the words of poets. Latin America and Eastern Europe have both produced remarkable photographers whose work reflects the magic realism of Borges, Márquez or Llosa. If I knew eastern European authors I would include a few of them in simile too. His images of the rituals and lives of Slovakian gypsies are infused with the magic we imagine in their lives. They are intimate images the way Frank’s are, but the emotions come not just from the photographer but seemingly from the subjects themselves. And his work on the Soviet invasion of Prague in 1968 demonstrates a bravery fictionalized by Milan Kundera in The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
Sebastião Salgado — He began his professional life as an economist for the International Coffee Organization but soon drifted to photography through which he has documented the social and political circumstances of the people most directly affected by the production of that and other commodities. This is firmly in the traditions of Riis, Hine and the FSA among others. But what makes Salgado’s work different is a fusion of the magic realism of Álvarez Bravo or Koudelka combined with the compositional complexity of Cartier-Bresson, and a skill for revealing the dignity in his subjects, no matter their circumstances.
Mary Ellen Mark — Many photographers have relished photographing subjects at whom you might like to stare — Richard Avedon’s In the American West, Diana Arbus’ work — but Mark developed early a style that blends social documentary with the made-you-look quality of subjects on the fringes of society. You may sometimes be shocked, but you never want to turn away from her empathetic stories.
Arnold Newman — Until the latter half of the 20th century, the posed, formal portrait was as much about vanity as it was a document. Portraits reflected the Old Masters in style and composition more than they really illustrated the life or personality of a subject. Perhaps the greatest practitioner of the environmental portrait was Arnold Newman, who could coax personality from a subject and reveal it in a telling environment better than anyone. There have been portraitists who have lit better, composed better, been more stylized and flashy, but few have taught us so much about the subjects themselves.
Charles Moore and Peter Magubane — Few Western photojournalists ever find themselves covering strife and revolution in their own backyards. Both of these men — Moore in the American South during the Civil Rights Movement and Magubane in South Africa under Apartheid — photographed their own cultures, neighbors and backyards in upheaval. It is always more difficult to photograph one’s own world than it is to photograph the foreign. These men, and others like them such the “Bang Bang Club,” Micha Bar-Am and others in similar circumstances have had to turn the cameras onto their friends, neighbors and families to tell the story of a revolution, and in the process created documents that explain deeply from within the story itself.
Ernst Haas and Alex Webb — Color photography has existed since the beginning of the 20th Century, but it did not reach maturity until color print reproduction was common and affordable in magazines. Until Haas and Webb, color was a secondary element in a photograph — more detail, more reality but less so an element of design. However Haas made color a principle element of mood and emotion, and Webb uses it as a structural element of composition. For both, color was as primary a reason to make an image as the moment in the scene, the social or historical significance or other graphic elements of the photo. They see color better than their predecessors.
Annie Leibovitz — Whereas Newman was out to find and photograph the person behind the celebrity, Leibovitz developed a style in the 1980s of photographing the celebrity in front of the person. Her subjects reveal not their innermost selves, but the crafted stage persona they have all developed and that is the source of their fame. And like many styles and approaches, Leibovitz has been emulated with failure more often than success as many photographers strive for stylization over substance in portraits. In addition to the portraiture, Leibovitz also revolutionized the way we document celebrity behind the scenes with her complete access following the Rolling Stones in the early 1970s.
And who comes next? I see trends away from the crisp realism of the last century toward an edgy, blurred point of view that feels like the pictorialists taking on the subject matter of Lewis Hine or Robert Frank. Who is the progenitor of that mood or another possible shift in how we approach our craft or profession? I am just one opinion with one knowledge set. You tell me who comes next.
Please note, most images on this post are linked directly from the originating sites rather than downloaded and republished. Please forgive any dead links.
I was walking on a beach in northeastern Brazil several years ago, taking a few hours break from an assignment there for the New York Times. I was in the middle of a rough patch in my personal life and the stream of thoughts and imagined conversations was rolling so fast I actually forgot where I was and what I was doing.
I stopped, looked down at the sand, and watched — straining to turn off that stream of words and just see what was below my feet. I was in an amazing place, covering a wonderful story. And I was forgetting to be there and savor it.
When I let my thoughts return, it wasn’t about what was happening in my personal life. I realized that my images — whether personal or professional — were much more successful when I had been truly emotionally and personally present in the scene I was photographing.
We work in a medium that can either engage us with a subject in an intimate way or separate us from our subjects with a big mechanical device to hide behind.
There are several ways we should come out from behind that camera to be present.
That old photojournalism dictum of “250 at f/8 and be there” always applies of course. We do our jobs by getting to the scene above all other considerations.
But if we are mentally present — really seeing the subject — our compositions are better. If you are struggling to understand how Richard Kalvar constructs so many complex layers of action from a single fleeting moment or how Stephen Crowley sees amusing irony around him, then try to stop that inner narrative and just watch every corner of the frame.
We should also be present with our subjects as something of a collaborator.
It’s easy in an emotional scene to hide behind the camera and burst forth with streams of motor-driven frames as the key emotional moments reveal themselves. Those pictures can even be quite impressive. But few would say that this one-sided interaction with a subject is not predatory.
I once watched an intern for a local paper bound up to within inches of a crying subject who had just learned she and her family would not be receiving government aid for health problems resulting from work in a nuclear weapons plant. His pictures certainly conveyed emotion to the paper’s readers. But all the other photographers present wanted to chase him out of the room for wrecking the intimacy we had gently tried to build with the subjects.
No matter how we would like to be flies on a wall, we never are. We are the biggest presence in the room and almost always work with tacit cooperation of subjects. When we have that cooperation and intimacy, our pictures are more true, and the subjects take away with them a sense that we were there to understand them rather than just use them.
We also need to be present to understand ourselves and what we bring to that collaboration. Our mental state matters in how we see a subject, what we understand of that person, place or event, and what about it we relate to our readers.
Though true objectivity is impossible, we gain the trust of our readers by making the best, most valiant attempt to see a subject clearly. And when I leave my own baggage at home, my subjects let me deeper into their lives.
And lastly, we work in an amazing profession that takes us into the homes, offices and lives of fascinating people, to locations most only dream of visiting, and into the rarely seen inner workings of the world. Be present and enjoy it. Put down your camera and absorb where you are or who that person in front of you is.
If you seek in your images the complexity of Cartier-Bresson or Kalvar, the emotional intimacy of Krisanne Johnson or Paolo Pellegrin, the spiritual metaphor of Kathryn Cook or Michael Ackerman, or the joy and humor of Elliot Erwitt, then be there — 250 at f/8 or not.
Remember that you are here, now, and wherever or whatever that place is, you are exceptionally lucky and you may never get back there.
The following is a journal entry I love, from a day at the beginning of my freelance career in which I left the camera at home, stopped to breathe-in the streets of Rio de Janeiro, and just watch. I smiled at the cinematic little ballet happening in front of me, glad for a change to not be distracted by trying to photograph it:
July 14, 1995
I stood at a corner in my neighborhood of Flamengo today, leaning for a moment against one of thousands of one-meter-tall concrete obelisks that line the sidewalks here to prevent space-frustrated drivers from parking their cars in the path of the wretched pedestrians.
I watched people pass.
Around the corner a woman begged, cradling a child on a blanket while her son of perhaps four years skipped among the pedestrians asking for a “trocadinho” — a bit of change.
An ancient woman struggled across Rua Senador Vergueiro on small deformed legs. She planted the cane carefully in front of herself and pried her way across the street with it. Half-way across, the light changed against her, but she held to her lever.
Impatient horns erupted from the line of cars who waited for her to move. The other cars, view blocked, honked at a cabby who defended himself with high-fisted protests. He waved back to the impatient to signal his innocence.
A tall, chivalrous-as-only-a-gentleman-can-be, old man with polar white hair and neat yellow pants rushed out and took her arm. They walked together like they were propping each other. The moment she cleared the cabby’s path by a hair he blasted forward around her.
The chivalrous old man deposited her on the other side of the street, and took the arm of yet another elderly woman. He helped her across the street in the opposite direction and kept going with her. I thought she must be his wife until she yanked herself loose in protest and turned up another direction on the sidewalk with a huff.
The helpful gentleman raised his palms to the air, incredulous at her lack of appreciation for his great knightly aid, and followed her for a moment with his gaze before he disappeared.
The first woman he helped never looked up from her path.
Rounding the corner on the curb to step out onto the perpendicular street, she dragged herself — a small grocery sack on one arm — against the traffic again. The cars waited until they could pass her without killing her, then broke loose like greyhounds.
She changed the hand her cane was in and reached out to the fender of a parked car. Her fingers stretched out for it. The car lingered just out of her grasp.
Her stride stopped completely, and she reached forward slowly — like honey dripping from a spoon. She teetered forward on her toes, and I got ready to catch her and the 2 liter bottle of Sprite hanging in a sack on her left arm.
Four or more people let out their breath when her fingers made contact and she pried her way past the car and onto the curb.
I turned back toward the other street.
A large delivery truck came through the intersection with a blue passenger door open slightly. It moved past me. The passenger hunched out of the door releasing his half-digested lunch to the pavement in heaving foul streams. He looked up between heaves with a pained grey face.
The light changed and two directions of traffic spread the bile in plaid patterns across the pavement.