Renowned American photographer Elliott Erwitt has captured more presidents since Harry Truman than any other photographer. Over the last 70 years, Erwitt has shot iconic photos of Marilyn Monroe, including her famous subway grate pose, the finger-pointing Nixon-Khrushchev Kitchen Debate in Moscow, segregated water fountains, a grieving Jacqueline Kennedy, and hundreds of humorous dog images.
His secret to producing such a well-received collection of personal work is to always bring two cameras to an assignment – one for the client “and one for me.”
If you ask him how he has managed to cover so many assignments over the years, his prompt answer is, “I use a fast shutter speed.” And why does he love photographing dogs? “Because they don’t ask for photos.”
Although he has slowed down a bit and is a man of few words, he is still full of energy as he is about to turn 94 in July.
Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Phil Mistry: So, tell me, Elliot, how did you get into photography?
Elliott Erwitt: I started by seeing other people’s work. The photographer who was most important to me was the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. I saw a catalog from a show that he had at the Museum of Modern Art. Later, I took some courses at City College, Los Angeles, but I can’t say that I got much out of them. It’s not rocket science, photography.
PM: You had a favorite dog who lived with you for 17 years. Did he inspire you to photograph dogs, or what is it about dogs that catch your fancy?
EE: I think that dogs are people with more hair. They’re sympathetic. They’re willing to please. And they’re generally cooperative. They don’t have an ax to grind.
PM: You once said you photographed dogs because they did not ask you for copies of the photos?
EE: That’s correct.
PM: If you could have only one photo hanging big at 6×4 feet in your living room, which image would you pick?
EE: Right now? I think I would pick one of my children.
PM: If we exclude your family since they are very personal and emotional subjects to you, which photo would you choose?
EE: It wouldn’t necessarily be a good picture. It would be simply a picture that would say hello to me.
PM: Would that be a dog picture or a picture of a human?
EE: (Big pause.) I don’t know.
PM: If you felt like you were 25 years old tomorrow, what would you like to go and photograph?
EE: You mean now?
PM: Yes. If you had the choice to shoot anything and anybody in the world and any place, what would you photograph?
EE: I would go to an interesting place without any specific [goal].
PM: Would you want to photograph a celebrity? A man on the street? Architecture?
EE: I think simply something that appeals. Yeah. I carry a camera.
PM: Which one?
EE: Well, I have a personal camera and a business camera. A business camera is whatever’s required for the job or the client.
PM: Is that a digital camera or a film camera?
EE: It’s a film camera for personal. A Leica that I use for some of my better pictures. A Leica M3, probably the most wonderful camera.
PM: Which lens?
EE: Let’s see. Three lenses go with my favorite camera. The 35mm lens, the 50mm lens, and the 135[mm] lens.
PM: Which film would you put in this camera today? If any film were available?
EE: [Kodak] Tri-X.
PM: Do you remember when Nixon stole your picture of Khrushchev and used it for political purposes?
PM: How did you feel about that? And did you protest to Nixon?
EE: No. I think it was a lucky opportunity I had, and as luck would have it, it is a significant picture.
PM: You have photographed celebrities like Marlene Dietrich, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Marilyn Monroe, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and I forget how many more. But who was your favorite celebrity to photograph?
EE: I don’t know. I’ll think about that.
PM: What attracted you to photographing Marilyn Monroe?
EE: It’s just an opportunity I had. I met her on a movie set, several movie sets. It would be difficult to take a bad picture of Marilyn Monroe. She is a real star. She’s sensitive in spite of her popularity. She was neurotic. Did I say sensitive?
PM: Yes, you did.
PM: What do you think of Photoshop?
EE: It’s a useful tool.
PM: Have you used it?
EE: I used it for business assignments, but I’m not too familiar with it.
PM: In the old days in the darkroom, we controlled contrast by using different paper grades. We dodged and burned the print. We did a lot of darkroom manipulation. Have you done darkroom kind of manipulation in Photoshop with dodging and burning, bringing out the details in the shadows? How do you find that kind of darkroom style work in Photoshop?
EE: Making a good print from a negative is not necessarily Photoshop. Photoshop is altering the picture that you haven’t taken.
PM: I’m not talking about changing a face or altering a photograph. I’m talking about using Photoshop just to do things like dodging and burning.
EE: That’s perfectly acceptable.
PM: Tell me about your latest book, Found Not Lost. How did you come up with that title?
EE: Actually, the book’s designer came up with that title.
PM: How did the book project come about?
EE: It occurred to me that often the right picture didn’t get printed, or a slightly better one might have [existed].
PM: Were these images missed the first time while looking at the contact sheets? Or how did that happen?
EE: Very often, you take pictures, or I would take pictures with just the joy of taking pictures, for no specific reason and no client and just for my interest. And when you look through your [photos you find] what you might have missed in the first edit.
PM: You have said sometimes your vision is ahead of your understanding. It was like you knew you could see well enough in your twenties to take the picture, but you didn’t understand that it was a good picture then. Seventy years later, you went back and looked at it. It speaks to you now, but it didn’t talk to you then.
EE: Yes, you can miss a good picture. You may not even know that you have a good picture unless you take a look. Taking pictures is a response to what you see and what you think you see. And it’s very easy not to respond to the quality of the image you shot until you see it in a different circumstance.
PM: That’s an interesting observation. You probably cannot remember, but how many rolls of film do you think you have shot in your lifetime?
EE: More than two!
PM: Have you taken any pictures with your iPhone?
EE: I think I might say that I take a few pictures of my children. But they’re not necessarily pictures that are significant for me.
PM: How does the look of color on the iPhone screen hit you instead of the black and white that you have been used to for 70 years?
EE: [B&W is] still the best way for me to take pictures that I like, simple. Yeah.
PM: So, did you experiment with Kodachrome 64 and color? Did you ever think that the world has gone into color and color printing of magazines, therefore, I should start shooting with Kodachrome 64?
EE: That’s no longer available.
PM: But when it was, did you use it?
EE: I used it for business, mostly. For commercial jobs, I used color films.
PM: What’s an example of some of the kinds of jobs you did, annual reports?
EE: The kind of work that I was doing for business in my career was color photography, which is normally required, and was fortunate to have the kind of assignments that required color. But I don’t have much in color.
PM: But Elliot, you did a whole book called Elliott Erwitt’s Kolor [450 pages selected from nearly half a million 35mm color slides], which was all your colored photographs. Did you like those?
EE: Yeah, those, those are; I don’t want to reject my color pictures. I think they’re reasonable […] and sometimes they don’t need justification. […]
I don’t like to have rules. I just like to take pictures. Print them, exhibit them.
PM: How did you end up joining Magnum Photos in 1953?
EE: I was just starting out as a photographer and was doing the kind of photography that was done by members of Magnum. I was invited to join Magnum by one of the agency’s founders, Robert Capa. [I first met Robert] when I was making the rounds of people that use photography.
EE: They were mentors. I showed my portfolio to interest them, to help me be part of that kind of photography.
PM: Did Roy Styker give you some commercial business assignments?
EE: Yes. For instance, one was Pittsburgh along with a group of photographers. [It was for a] historical purpose. [The city] was transforming itself by tearing down the old Pittsburgh into the new one. And we were the photographers to record this event.
PM: I remember you had a photograph of Jackie Kennedy crying at JFK’s funeral. Do you remember that image?
EE: Very well. She was a very sad woman. President Kennedy was shot and killed.
PM: What goes through your mind, Elliot, today? When you look at that photo?
EE: That’s what I call a very lucky shot.
EE: It was evocative of Jackie Kennedy, the president’s wife, and the very important change in history. Because it’s not easy to [get such photos]. At least in those days, [it was] not quite as horrendous as it is today with security and access. I remember the days when you could; if you had a reason to be in the White House for photography or reporting, it was possible without the security that eventually made things difficult to access.
PM: What do you think of digital cameras?
EE: I wish I would understand them. Some people are just good at it, and some people are not.
PM: In digital, you can get instant feedback on whether something’s working, versus waiting until after the situation is over and then finding out. You could be cutting off somebody’s head. Do you think that digital offers that advantage, or does it distract you while shooting?
EE: Well, there’s no question that it’s a useful tool to find out whether you cut somebody’s head off that you were supposed to photograph, but that’s where luck is important and experience. Sometimes when you think you’ve not cut everybody’s head off, you find out that you have taken some bad pictures, are not well composed, not as good as it’s necessary to please a client. And sometimes you may think that you’ve done well, and [still] your pictures look bad, not thoughtful, not relevant.
PM: Which digital cameras have you used?
EE: I’ve used digital cameras for specific assignments that required (pause). Let’s see. Sony is one.
PM: Do you remember the model?
EE: No, they keep coming out with new cameras every third Sunday. It’s hard to keep up with.
PM: Sure. It’s hard for everybody to keep up!
EE: It’s not necessary to keep up.
PM: You made documentary films, and, in the eighties, you made comedy films for HBO. What made you shift from stills to the moving image? What was your motivation?
EE: Interest. Movies were kind of exciting. Well, I kept on taking pictures. I [also] made 18 films for HBO, which was an entirely different kind of work, but very enjoyable.
PM: How did you go back to being a still photographer after that?
EE: I don’t think it was too significant [of a change].
PM: But did you stop getting satisfaction from doing movies and decide you had more control as a photographer? How did you choose to put the film camera down or stop as a director?
EE: I had the opportunity to make documentaries. I was lucky to have the opportunity to do that.
PM: How did your shoot of Fidel Castro go?
EE: Very smoothly. I went down with a Canadian film group, and I had access to the revolutionaries.
PM: How long did you spend with Fidel Castro? And with Che Guevara?
EE: It was about a week. They were amazingly accessible at that time.
PM: Do you remember your photography of John F. Kennedy in the White House, and what can you tell us about it?
EE: Yes, I did a five-part assignment documenting Kennedy’s war experience. PT 109: An American Epic of War, Survival and the Destiny of John F. Kennedy was the title. PT 109 was the boat rammed by the Japanese [in 1943].
PM: You enjoyed shooting with your 35mm Leica, but in 1949 when you traveled to France and Italy, you picked up a Rolleiflex. Why the big, heavy Rolleiflex instead of your trusted Leica?
EE: I don’t know. I might have used a specific camera for a specific purpose.
PM: Did you also use a Speed Graphic?
EE: Yes. I’ve used many cameras: Speed Graphic, Graflex.
PM: So, which is your favorite camera?
EE: Leica M3. It’s just the best. The one that I use the most.
EE: I would have to know how it was applied. It sounds okay. [There] is no harm to it.
PM: Did you use light meters, or did you just figure out exposure by going with your gut?
EE: Mostly, know what conditions are. Get used to it. And the film has latitude, so you could be wrong and still get a good picture.
PM: I heard a story that you took some courses at the new school in New York City where you exchanged janitorial services for photography classes. Was it worthwhile?
EE: Not especially.
PM: Which was your favorite publication to work for?
EE: Publication? My favorite publication was the one that hired you.
PM: Were you happy about the Standard Oil photos that you created?
EE: I was happy about any kind of work that I could get. I was a beginner in photography and hungry for work.
About the author: Phil Mistry is a photographer and teacher based in Atlanta, GA. He started one of the first digital camera classes in New York City at The International Center of Photography in the 90s. He was the director and teacher for Sony/Popular Photography magazine’s Digital Days Workshops. You can reach him here.
Image credits: All photos courtesy Elliott Erwitt.