New York, NY—Legendary photographer and longtime Magnum member Elliott Erwitt passed away at the age of 95. He was born Elio Romano Ervitz to Russian-Jewish parents in Paris in 1928. However, Erwitt spent his childhood in Milan and emigrated to the U.S. in 1939 when fascism drove his family from Italy.
Erwitt was living in Los Angeles when he began to take portraits of local people. Working in a commercial darkroom, the teenage photographer spent time printing images of actors before further experimentations with photography at Los Angeles City College. In 1948, he moved to New York, where his life and family would be centered. There, he also took up film classes at the New School for Social Research.
“It is hard to measure the impact that Elliott Erwitt has had on Magnum and the world of photography. His images have helped build our general understanding of who we are as a society and as humans and have inspired generations of photographers despite the changes in the industry and trends,” commented Cristina de Middel, Magnum president. “He was a tireless generator of icons. The combination of his casual and humoristic approach to the act of photographing, and his obsessive dedication, made him a unique artist that we have lost today with great sadness.
“Elliott Erwitt was part of Magnum for 70 of the 76 years of our existence as a cooperative and agency. And his work and archive are a fundamental part of our DNA and mission. At Magnum, we will proudly protect the inspiring legacy that his image-making will keep on playing in the history of art and photography.”
Elliott Erwitt: Magnum Photographer
While in New York, Erwitt met Edward Steichen, Robert Capa and Roy Stryker, the former head of the Farm Security Administration. Stryker had contributed to the careers of Walker Evans, Ben Shahn, Dorothea Lange, Marion Post Wolcott and Gordon Parks. He initially hired Erwitt for a job at the Standard Oil Company in New Jersey, where Stryker was compiling a photographic library. Following this, Stryker commissioned Erwitt for a project documenting the city of Pittsburgh in 1950. It was a series that Erwitt published as a book in 2017.
After military service, where he undertook photographic duties while stationed in Germany and France, Erwitt joined Magnum Photos in 1953. Moreover, he worked as a freelance photographer for Collier’s, Look, LIFE, Holiday and other illustrated magazines. Further, he continually worked as a commercial photographer and journalist. He photographed Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly, Jack Kerouac, John F. Kennedy and Jackie Kennedy, among others. What’s more, in 1959, he captured the moment of tension between Nikita Khrushchev and Richard Nixon during the diplomatic visit known as the Kitchen Debate. Subsequently, in 1964 Erwitt visited Cuba and made portraits of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara.
Erwitt sought out the most absurd as well as charming moments of life. Like his work, his views on his practice were often instantly memorable, usually taking the form of pithy, epigrammatic sayings. In addition, dogs were a source of insight into humanity for Erwitt. He expressed his sympathy for them, which formed the subject of four of his books. In Dog Dogs, published in 1998, he noted: “I don’t know of any other animals closer to us in qualities of heart, sentiment and loyalty.”
Furthermore, Erwitt’s photography concerned love and romantic partnerships. A couple shown in a side-mirror of a car, shot in 1956, is one of Erwitt’s most beloved photographs. Erwitt’s turn of the lens to his own personal life, in an image of his wife and young child, also touched many in the times since its initial exhibition in the 1955 humanist exhibtion, Family of Man.
Then, in the late 1960s, Erwitt began a three-year term as Magnum’s president. Notably in the 1970s, he produced several documentaries. Further, in the 1980s, he worked on 18 comedy films for HBO. In 2002, he was awarded the Royal Photographic Society’s Centenary Medal. Additionally, in 2011, he received the International Center of Photography’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
Most recently, in 2023, he was inducted into the Leica Hall of Fame. What’s more, he personally put together a selection of 50 of his best motifs for the exhibition at the Leica Gallery Wetzlar. In addition to legendary celebrity portraits and his preferred dog pictures, the display includes snapshots that reflect his empathy and sense of humor. One of his iconic motifs was also chosen as the Leica Picture of the Year 2023—a portrait of a bulldog sitting on its owner’s lap taken in New York City in 2000.
This article, in large part, was compiled by Magnum Photos.