“I’m serious about not being serious,” declares Elliott Erwitt, while being interviewed for a soon-to-be-released documentary, Elliott Erwitt: Silence Sounds Good, about his life and works. Pithy phrases like this are peppered throughout the film and reveal the Magnum photographer’s penchant for wit and wry observation – as well as ambiguity. What is also evident is Erwitt’s seemingly insatiable energy; in his late 80s at the time of filming, we follow him as he travels to Cuba on assignment, puts together a new book, and goes about his busy days in New York City.
Director Adriana Lopez Sanfeliu, who had previously worked as Erwitt’s assistant for three years, was keen to show “the Elliott she knew” personally — rather than making a “biographical retrospective on Elliott’s career”, which she contests “any historian can make”. The genesis of the film came from Erwitt’s own sense of mortality; he had proposed that Sanfeliu made the film soon, “before he croaked”.
"Cuba was a turning point, it was like a reality check... evidence that time has passed"
- Adriana Lopez Sanfeliu
In spite of, or perhaps because of, this awareness, the Erwitt of the documentary shows no sign of slowing down. This irrepressible spirit is particularly evident in his visit to Cuba. The film documents his return to the country for the first time in 50 years in 2015, after the announcement that America and Cuba were to normalise relations. It was a monumental trip, both in terms of observing the “country emerging from its sleep”, but also in Erwitt testing his physical limitations. “Cuba was a turning point, it was like a reality check… evidence that time has passed,” says Sanfeliu in her voiceover. “We could all see Elliott was pushing the limits—and beyond. I was like: Listen, do you still need to be working 10 hours a day?”
It is clear that despite his more than 60 years in the business, Erwitt’s curiosity is as urgent a drive as ever. “Elliott is very hard working and doesn’t take anything for granted, even with all the experience he has,” observes Sanfeliu. “He faces every assignment with the same dedication and commitment and that’s always been something I value a lot. He’s very humble about approaching a project, always fully committed and puts everything he has into it; energy, talent and skill.”
"Pictures have to do with heart and mind and eye and they have to communicate and as long as they do that, it’s valid"
- Elliott Erwitt
The making of the film presented challenges. Erwitt, who is not used to being a photographic subject, and Sanfeliu – who hadn’t made a documentary before – both found themselves occupying unfamiliar territory. “It was very hard for him not to be in control of the situation,” recalls Sanfeliu. Their close personal relationship also meant that Erwitt felt comfortable enough showing what Sanfeliu terms his “cranky side”. “He wasn’t afraid to say: ‘I’m getting bored’ or ‘I’m getting annoyed’”.
Indeed, though Sanfeliu strove to show the Erwitt she knows and loves, he was less willing to offer up his private self on camera. Sanfeliu says she has been with Erwitt many times during interviews and talks, where he is working to “meet the expectations of the public” and when her camera was rolling she found she often got this same persona. “It’s hard to portray someone as big as him,” says Sanfeliu. “The filming process for me was [partly about] accepting that I was only going to be able to share a very minimal part of who Elliott is, the Elliott who I have known. All the elements are there, including his humour, but I wanted to show more. I couldn’t though, I simply couldn’t—he wouldn’t allow it.”
" [Photography] is how I make my living, how I dedicated my career, my professional life, and that’s what has fed my children and four wives. I guess that’s about it"
- Elliott Erwitt
Sanfeliu pushed Erwitt on points of discussion such as the meaning and relevance of photography in his life. But Erwitt, who prefers not to intellectualise the subject simply replied wryly: “[Photography] is how I make my living, how I dedicated my career, my professional life, and that’s what has fed my children and four wives. I guess that’s about it.” When asked if he feels he has to live up to all the iconic work he has done before, he noted sagely: “Well naturally your pictures should be good. Sometimes they are, sometimes they aren’t. I like to take pictures that are worthy of the time spent and the subjects.”
Erwitt does, however, concede to offer his two-cents on what makes a good image: “Pictures have to do with heart and mind and eye and they have to communicate and as long as they do that, it’s valid.”
Erwitt’s photography unfailing meets this criteria and the film conveys just how many iconic images he has made over the years. But beyond his considerable photographic legacy, Sanfeliu also wanted to highlight the legacy of Erwitt’s relationships and friendships. In this way, the film is as much a study of the people who surround him as it is of Erwitt himself; it is a picture of his assistants, colleagues and friends – all an integral part of the axis that he rotates on. “What do we leave behind when we depart our lives ?” asks Sanfeliu. “It’s a very poignant [photographic] legacy that he’s leaving us. But legacy is also in the relationships that we have. And the film is an homage to that; to love and relationships.”
Watch the trailer for Elliott Erwitt – Silence Sounds Good, below. The film will premiere on ARTE on Monday, October 7, at 23h54.