The Arty Semite

Elliott Erwitt: An American Jewish Photographer’s Fierce Wit

By Benjamin Ivry

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Photography lovers who will be in Italy should try to see “Elliott Erwitt’s Rome,” an exhibit which opened in November 13, 2009 and remains on view until January 31.

An accompanying volume published by teNeues sheds light on Erwitt. Born in Paris in 1928 to a Russian-Jewish family which moved to Milan but fled Mussolini in 1938, he resettled in Los Angeles in 1941. Erwitt grew up to be a Leopold Bloom of photography: gifted with a multi-layered Joycean wit, leavened with a dollop of fierce Dada sensibility.

In one 1955 image of a Rome street vendor, a portrait of Mussolini is shown on a pile of rubbishy art, but positioned atop the pile as a further subtle dig. A 2008 image, “Jewish Ghetto, Rome, Italy” shows a Hasidic Jew slouching past an ancient ruined building, which seems to symbolize the fleeting glory that was Rome. In another 2008 photo, a participant in an elaborate Catholic procession gives the (Jewish) photographer a murderous look, very timely in our era of “Holy Wars.”

A deeply humane anti-racist, Erwitt has made some of the most eloquent photographs about the oppression of blacks in America. In a cagey, pensive, introverted 1981 interview (see below) Erwitt expressed appreciation for the Hungarian Jewish photographer André Kertész, but in spirit he is closer to the German Jewish pioneer of candid photography Erich Salomon who perished at Auschwitz.

Still active in his 80s, Erwitt is like another of his 2008 images from Rome — one of an elderly, still-striving runner, stretching in front of an array of old statues of exemplary, long-dead athletes. Always an active commercial photographer, Erwitt has lately become part of the sales pitch himself, starring in a series of commercials to promote tourism to Puerto Rico. A fierce critic and editor of his own and others’ images, in a short film Erwitt uncompromisingly discusses his contact sheets.

His self-contained aggressive humor explodes in another new book, “The Art of André S. Solidor : a.k.a. Elliott Erwitt” in which Erwitt dons a wig and mustache to pose as a Salvador Dalí-like star photographer, whose name perhaps is inspired by a 1930s androgynous French chanteuse, Suzy Solidor.

Having previously dismissed color as mere “information,” here Erwitt wallows in it, but his parodies of such colleagues as Cindy Sherman and Helmut Newton are so lusciously sensual that they have inherent value, beyond the deflating joshing, like all Erwitt’s best work.

Watch a reticent, ill-at-ease Erwitt interviewed by Barbaralee Diamonstein in 1981:

Watch a more poised and relaxed Erwitt, interviewed in the Netherlands in 2009:


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Suzy Solidor, Salvador Dali, Rome, Photography, Leopold Bloom, James Joyce, Helmut Newton, Elliott Erwitt, Erich Salomon, Exhibits, Dada, Barbaralee Diamonstein, Cindy Sherman, André Kertész

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