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Comprehensive Elliot Erwitt retrospective, including about 150 works, opens at Kunst Haus Wien
FRANCE. Paris. 1989. © Elliott Erwitt/Magnum Photos.

VIENNA.- Elliott Erwitt, the “Woody Allen of photography”, who views his subjects with his heart as much as with his eye, captures human – sometimes all-too-human – situations in his oeuvre. Kunst Haus Wien presents pieces of the mosaic that is Erwitt’s reality, taken from over half a century of his photographic work. This comprehensive retrospective includes about 150 works by a highly active photographer.

Elliott Erwitt embodies a type of photographer that has become extremely rare, one who views his subjects with his heart as much as with his eye and thereby sees things that most people rarely notice: the little humorous situations and passions of everyday life, the tiny moments in which gestures and facial expressions say more than a thousand words.

Erwitt is one of the leading photographers of his generation. Extremely versatile, with a broad spectrum of interests, he points his camera at human – sometimes all-too-human – situations: Some of them involve animals, others are political, still others capture a touching moment. Photography, for Erwitt, is above all an “art of observation” that depends first and foremost on the special way in which one views the world. His photographs reflect the irony of life, which perhaps explains why he is sometimes fondly called the “Woody Allen of photography”.

In our world of fast-moving TV images and digitally enhanced pictorially compositions in advertising and fashion, Erwitt’s works restore to the photographic medium its original power. His snapshots are pieces of the mosaic of reality. Erwitt has a gift that few photographers possess, the gift of conveying a subtext with each photo: sentiment, anger, a little happiness; an emotion that can only be recognised by looking very closely; a “before” and an “after”. Erwitt himself calls this the “essence of what happens”. For Erwitt, photography is about really seeing things: “You either see, or you don't see.”

“Kitchen Debate”
The ability to tell a whole story in one picture is Elliott Erwitt’s strength – as in the summer of 1959, when US Vice President Richard Nixon met Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev at the American National Exhibition in Moscow. Erwitt’s snapshot documents how Capitalism and Socialism collided head-on in the form of the volatile Nixon and the surly Khrushchev. Actually, what he photographed was – as he later discovered – merely a conversation about banalities between two politicians during the Cold War, and yet this turned out to be the political photograph that would make him famous. Erwitt’s photo of the so-called “Kitchen Debate” cemented Nixon’s image as a hardliner and Erwitt’s own reputation as a journalistic photographer who had the qualities of an “invisible insider”.

“Dogging Dogs”
Erwitt has always taken photographs for his own pleasure as well: street scenes, people – and dogs. The photographer relates to dogs on a very friendly basis; he barks at them and photographs them in situations that show how “human” they can be. He takes some of these photos on walks in Central Park in New York, others at dog fairs and dog pageants. Erwitt’s dog photos have filled whole books and he could probably pride himself on having created the first image of dogs as cultural creatures.

“Museum Watching”
The “art of observation” has led Erwitt to take numerous photographs of people in museums: He portrays people in their silent dialogue with art when they pause – engrossed or sceptical – to take a closer look at an artwork. The particular environment of the museum is an ideal one for his sharp and at the same time affectionately ironic eye for people.

When Elliott Erwitt mingles with nudists and takes photographs, the result is very different from the usual photographs of nudes. Erwitt shows people unclothed and undisguised, far from ideals of beauty and staged poses. These photos form a kind of sociogram of nudist culture and are perhaps Erwitt’s most extreme attempt to capture the “conditio humana” in photographs.

“Personal Exposures”
Between politics and irony, between concerned photography and street photography, these works reveal touching moments that Erwitt has encountered and observed. These photographs allow room for intimacy. They include pictures of his family as well as famous portraits of actors and artists.

“Photographs and Anti-Photographs”
Elliott Erwitt, the son of Russian émigrés, was born in 1928 in Paris. After his birth, the family moved to Milan, where Elliott spent the first ten years of his life. In 1938, the Erwitts fled the Italian fascists and returned to Paris, after which they escaped the Nazis on the last passenger ship to the USA. The family landed in New York, but Elliot’s father soon decided he did not want to stay there. The family travelled all the way across the USA to California and started a new life in Los Angeles. Today, Elliott Erwitt lives in New York.

As a photographer, Erwitt has always worked for the advertising industry and at the same time realised his own photographic projects. This double context of assignment photography and authorship photography has typified his entire career, although the borders between the two fields have often been fuzzy. In 1948, Erwitt met the photographic legend Robert Capa, who invited him to join Magnum Photos. In 1954 he became a full member of the agency, where he soon felt completely at home. He served as President of Magnum Photos from 1966 to 1969.

Elliott Erwitt is one of an elite group of photographers whose pictorial language has heavily influenced American photojournalism. In decades of successful work as a photographer and as a director of documentaries and television films, Erwitt has always also remained an “amateur” – in the sense of its Latin root, meaning “lover” – of photography. In his photos he combines irony with insight and lightness with profundity, thereby creating humorous images that can often make life just a little bit easier for the beholder.

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