Elliot Erwitt

Master Photographers on Their Art.

Group of children - Italy, Venice, 1949 Life drawing class in reverse, USA, New York, East Hampton, 1983 Dog in knitted sweater on street, USA, New York City, 1946

I started out just taking pictures. I was fifteen and a half. They were pictures of the neighbors, friends, and so forth. Eventually I got into it more. It became a career and I’ve been doing it ever since.


Since photography is so simple, especially now when everybody is some kind of photographer, people try to invest it with mystique, self-importance. But an orangutan with a camera would get a result. And blown up large enough it might sell very well.


I have two parallel “photographies”—stuff done for hire, to fill briefs and satisfy clients; and then pictures I take for my own amusement, my hobby. And they are quite different. I have a professional life and I have an amateur life. Perhaps I am now mostly known for the amateur life.


I travel a great deal and I always try to justify what I do by taking some time off and taking pictures. This is particularly because my travels take me to interesting places.


What makes a picture I like? It will have a good composition, be a well-balanced photograph, and I would like it to say something beyond the obvious.


Luck is very much part of my modus operandi.


Usually I don’t set anything up. Sometimes I do.


With what I’ve called “Phototoons,” sometimes a series of pictures appears, two or three or four in a sequence. They seem to be more like cartoons than anything else, hence the name.


I don’t mind copying my own stuff, if somebody assigns me to do it, but I have a problem when they get somebody else to do it. I do the pictures I care about, for myself, in black and white, on film.


Digital has made things so easy it has had an effect on the quality of the image. Anything that is terribly easy makes you lazy.


I’m doing a project under an assumed name. It will be a book that is full of everything that I don’t do—it is color, it is vulgar; total nonsense, just an exercise, and it is all digital. A bit of a send-up of what is popular right now.


I suppose I sneak around a bit, taking pictures of people when they don’t notice, looking for the spontaneous, the unarranged. But, of course, one does arrange pictures simply by framing, moving around, crouching, or standing up. That’s kind of legitimate arranging; the kind that isn’t, is if you say “stand here,” and I do that too! Certainly, professionally, I do it all the time, but that is something else.


Nudists love to have their pictures taken. They are exhibitionists, generally.


I’ve just done a book on Rome. I have been there a few times and have quite a lot of pictures. I brought it up to date with some new images. I put the Pope next to erlusconi in the layout.


Anything to do with the Church in Rome is funny, with all the silly people in their gowns. It is good for pictures. I was there for the synod and all the cardinals were there—that’s good for a laugh.


You try to go to places where things do happen. When I walk my dog I often take my camera along. Dogs are a good subject because they are very similar to humans. For me, they are people with more hair and they don’t ask for prints.


I discovered I happened to have a lot of dog pictures. And when I started to do books, I thought “Dogs are of universal interest,” and so I put it together. It worked out, so I kept on taking pictures of dogs.


The pictures I take for myself are essentially the same over the years. You might think I haven’t progressed at all! But, commercially—those pictures have changed because you do what is expected of you, what is in the brief. With the personal pictures, it is simply what I see, a simple truth.


I have a few favorite pictures, but they change. I would just like to continue what I am doing. It is sad to see that it is hard for young people to progress and get started in the kind of photography I think that counts. Often the only really interesting pictures you see are in fashion—but who really cares about that?


My technique with people? Well, it depends. I have a horn that sometimes I blow. It is like with horses, the ears go up and they pay attention. There are all kinds of tricks, but generally you don’t need them; just take pictures.


I think the best thing for a young photographer to do today is to be an heir. It is a tough one, trying to work as a photographer now; it is seen as a glamour profession and too many people want to do it, and colleges turning so many people out. To have a career in it today is pretty tough.


Everybody is a photographer or, at least, everybody with a phone has a camera nowadays. It would be nice for everybody to understand more about the visual, about form, about what it is that makes a picture. It makes your life full.


I prefer to be amusing rather than to be tragic.