The Elliott Erwitt Show and Thoughts on Humor in Photography

Street Performers, NYC

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I recently had a chance to visit New York City. I’m not certain, but I think the last time I was in NYC for any length of time was in the late 1980’s. I had heard various things about NYC being “cleaned up” in the last couple of decades, but nevertheless I was struck by the remarkable change the city had undergone. In short, it felt like a different city. The trains were clean and efficient; it felt reasonably safe to walk around at night (although I was only in Manhattan and Brooklyn) and I was only once approached by a panhandler. In my previous visit I felt like I was forever walking a phalanx of beggars. Perhaps my visit was a bit charmed, but it really felt like a different place.

The food and the sights and the street scenes were all classically NYC interesting, but the main thing that I want to write about today was a trip to the International Center for Photography to see the Elliott Erwitt exhibit, which runs until sometime in August. I was interested in seeing the show from the moment I read about it, and when I realized that we would be in the area I put it on my “must do” list for the NYC visit.

The show is a retrospective of Erwitt’s life’s work (he was born in 1928) and features a self-curated selection of large prints, several books, and other miscellanea. The 100 B&W prints are printed in various sizes. With the current trend towards huge prints, many of them are unfortunately printed much too large–I can only guess at the sizes of these, but some of them must border on 40 to 50 inches on a side. In my opinion, these larger prints suffered badly in some cases from huge, blotchy grain that distracted from the subject matter even viewed at respectable distances for prints of this size. I am guessing he was mostly a Leica 35mm shooter, and a 35mm frame can only be blown up so large before it begins falling apart. The smaller prints (15-30 inches/side) fared much better, retaining gorgeous tonalities and transitions, and allowing the viewer to move in closer for a more intimate encounter with the subject matter.

The exhibit showed off the Magnum photographer’s incredible photographic versatility and featured examples of street, documentary, photojournalist and portrait work. A few of the photographs are iconic: portraits of Marilyn Monroe, close-ups from the volatile Kruschev-Nixon meetings, humorous dog-human juxtapositions–I recognized many that I wouldn’t have put a name to beforehand. My favorites were the street and documentary prints, which often illustrated Erwitt’s sense of humor. This quote from the exhibit sums those up nicely:

“Above all, Erwitt is noted for his offbeat sense of humor, a rarity in photography. Throughout his work, Erwitt combines gentle whimsy with ironic observation of everyday life. Often his works involve visual puns that make the viewer look twice; such clever comedy requires that every picture be organized with great elegance and precision.”

Perhaps these resonated with me the most because they are precisely closest to what I would say is my own style, which I have described to others for a while now as often humorous or whimsical in nature (although not always so subtle). I can only agree that humor is a rarity in “serious” photography (no pun intended); it must be done with “elegance and precision” in order to keep the viewer from immediately dismissing it into the genre of the snapshot and vernacular. I don’t know all the reasons for this, but it is the same in any branch of art: most art is serious, and the goal of many artists is to make you think, make you angry, make you uncomfortable–anything but to make you smile or laugh. Yet humor and laughter are staples of our human emotions as well; why shouldn’t art evoke them? It’s taken me many years of photography to begin to see my own style emerge, and I feel like that is something I’m finally beginning to get a handle on. While Erwitt’s style is different, he’s one of the few very successful photographers in which I can see an affinity for humor, and it’s refreshing and strangely familiar to see it.

Despite some minor flaws in the presentation, all in all I feel the Erwitt retrospective is a very interesting and worthwhile show. If you will be in the NYC area before the end of the summer, I highly recommend stopping by the ICP on 6th ave midtown and checking it out.

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