Life According to Elliott Erwitt

We celebrate the photographer's inimitable wit through his wry observations on life, relationships and, of course, dogs

Elliott Erwitt

Elliott Erwitt Eiffel tower 100th anniversary. Paris, France. 1989. © Elliott Erwitt | Magnum Photos

A major retrospective of Elliott Erwitt’s work takes place at the Villa Bassi Rathgeb Museum in Abano Terme in northern Italy from January 28–June 11. 154 vintage photographs, spanning sixty years of Erwitt’s practice, will be on view. Find out more, in Italian, here

Elliott Erwitt is known for his witticisms. They leap out of the page when reading his photobooks. Often dry, sometimes biting, his musings on daily life sparkle with a wicked irreverence.

A new collection of fine prints, posters, contact sheets and books by Erwitt, exploring a lifetime that the Magnum photographer has spent behind the lens, is available to browse on the Magnum Shop here.

“The maxim says ‘time flies when you are having fun,’” Erwitt writes of taking photos, “It surely has been fun and time has surely flown. But more than fun it has been and continues to be a way of life for me.” 

Having joined Magnum Photos in 1953, Erwitt is one of the agency’s long-standing members. Over the course of his career, he has produced seminal works on barrack life in the Army Signal Corps, post-war Pittsburgh and iconic celebrity portraiture. However, it is his deeply humanist approach in photographing his subjects that has won him international acclaim. From his amusing commentary on beachside voyeurism to his teasing indifference to cats, Erwitt’s wry observations have continually fed into his photographs. As he says, “I found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.” Here, we share a select few of his sideways takes on life, in his own words.

Elliott Erwitt New York City, USA. 1953. © Elliott Erwitt | Magnum Photos

Everybody is equal, even celebrities

“Taking pictures of celebrities is exactly like taking pictures of non-celebrities. Compose the photograph properly, try to evoke something special or unique given the available possibilities. Above all do not be intimidated. Remember that even the most exalted celebrities brush their teeth at night before going to bed.”

— Elliott Erwitt’s Personal Best (2006)

Elliott Erwitt American actress Marilyn Monroe. New York, USA. 1956. © Elliott Erwitt | Magnum Photos

Ways of seeing

“To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place…. I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.”

—  Museum Watching (1999)

Elliott Erwitt The Tate Gallery. London, England. 1993. © Elliott Erwitt | Magnum Photos

Between the sexes

“We all find new dimensions of love between the sexes. The sober, profound, long-lasting possibilities for love: affection and loyalty and friendship, not confused by urgent passion. This isn’t a second-best, thirdhand kind of love. It is, for some relationships, the right love for the season.”

Between the Sexes (1994)

Elliott Erwitt New York City, USA. 1955. © Elliott Erwitt | Magnum Photos
Elliott Erwitt California, USA. 1955. © Elliott Erwitt

Sex on the beach

“The beach is a better pickup spot than any cocktail party. There’s always a lot of pawing going on. And you get the product properly displayed.”

On the Beach (1991)

"The beach is a better pickup spot than any cocktail party"

- Elliott Erwitt
Elliott Erwitt Town of St. Tropez, Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur region, France. 1959. © Elliott Erwitt | Magnum Photos

The alchemy of a photograph

“When photography is good, it’s pretty interesting, and when it is very good, it is irrational and even magical… nothing to do with the photographer’s conscious will or desire. When the photograph happens, it comes easily, as a gift that should not be questioned or analyzed.”

Elliott Erwitt’s Personal Best (2006)

"I rely on a hunch, a little luck, and some cunning"

- Elliott Erwitt

Every cloud has a silver lining

“In life’s saddest winter moments, when you’ve been under a cloud for weeks, suddenly a glimpse of something wonderful can change the whole complexion of things, your entire feeling. The kind of photography I like to do, capturing the moment, is very much like that break in the clouds. In a flash, a wonderful picture seems to come out of nowhere.”

Between the Sexes (1994)

Elliott Erwitt New York, USA. 1955. © Elliott Erwitt | Magnum Photos

The recipe for success

“If you’ve got no responsibility and don’t have to generate a certain amount of cash each month, and can live on a shoestring, and are ambitious enough, then you might have a chance. You can be dedicated but that is no guarantee that you’ll make it. I rely on a hunch, a little luck, and some cunning.”

The Private Experience: Elliott Erwitt (1974)

Elliott Erwitt Wyoming. USA. 1954. © Elliott Erwitt | Magnum Photos
Elliott Erwitt New Mexico. USA. 1998. © Elliott Erwitt | Magnum Photos

Love hurts

“1st Truth: It is painful to be separated from the people you love.
2nd Truth: It is painful to be united with the people you don’t love.”

“There’s one good thing about the first kind of pain: how nice it feels when, and if, the separations stop. Of course, when one person in a couple feels the second kind of pain, it probably won’t be long before the other feels the first type. Some philosophy.”

Between the Sexes (1994)

Elliott Erwitt The engagement party of Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier of Monaco at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. New York City, USA. January, 1956. © Elliott Erwitt | Magnum Photos

The endless fascination of museums

“People seem to be attracted to items in museums with which they have a special affinity. I’ve noticed people sometimes take on the look of an item on display. Perhaps we are drawn to things that resemble ourselves. Certainly, people form relationships with particular works of art. If a painting or sculpture grabs you, you can come back and visit it again and again, perhaps for the rest of your life, and get something out of it each time.”

— Museum Watching (1999)

Elliott Erwitt The Palace of Versailles. Yvelines department, France. 1975. © Elliott Erwitt | Magnum Photos

A dog is a man’s best friend

“Dogs have more to do than children. For one thing, they are forced to lead a life that is really schizoid. Every minute, they have to live on two planes at once, juggling the dog world against the human world. And they’re always on call. Their owners want instant affection every day, any time of day. A dog can never say that he has other things to do. He can never have a headache, like a wife.”

Dog Dogs (1998)

Elliott Erwitt Street scene in New York City. USA. 2000 © Elliott Erwitt | Magnum Photos
Elliott Erwitt New York, USA. 1974. © Elliott Erwitt | Magnum Photos

Stirring emotions

“Making people laugh is one of the highest achievements you can have. And when you can make someone laugh and cry, alternately, as Charlie Chaplin does, now that’s the highest of all possible achievements.”

Between the Sexes (1994)

"Making people laugh is one of the highest achievements you can have"

- Elliott Erwitt

Curiosity is everything

“I don’t think you can create luck. You’re either lucky or you’re not. I don’t know if it’s really luck or if it’s just curiosity. I think the main ingredient, or a main ingredient for photography is curiosity. If you’re curious enough and if you get up in the morning and go out and take pictures, you’re likely to be more lucky than if you just stay at home.”

About Photography (2014)

Elliott Erwitt Bridgehampton. New York, USA. 1990. © Elliott Erwitt | Magnum Photos
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