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Remembering Elliott Erwitt Share This on LinkedIn   Tweet This   Forward This

1 December 2023

Elliott Erwitt, whose freelance photography captured American political history, starlets in the spotlight, whimsy and humor, died Thursday at his home in Manhattan. He was 95.

Elio Romano Ervitz was born in 1928 in Paris, the son a Russian Orthodox Jew and his wife, who both fled Russia for France after the 1917 Revolution. The family moved to Italy first then to France when Mussolini's regime became intolerable, finally emigrating to the United States in 1939, days before the start of World War II.

When his father became a salesman, he took Elliott Erwitt (the Americanized version of his name) from New York to Los Angeles in 1941, selling wristwatches in small towns to pay their way. In Los Angeles, the 16-year-old Erwitt developed an interest in photography to deal with his shyness. He used an antique glass-plate camera before upgrading to a Rolleiflex.

After graduating from Hollywood high school, he studied photography at Los Angeles City College and worked in a commercial darkroom. He returned to New York in 1949 to begin a professional career that would extend over 70 years.

'The best things happen when you just happen to be somewhere with a camera.'

He was drafted into the Army in 1951 during the Korean war but he was stationed with an Army Signal Corps unit in France. There he took a picture of soldiers killing time in the barracks that won a Life Magazine contest, getting him in print with an award of $2,500. That changed his life, he said.

Erwitt worked exclusively as a freelancer, working in fashion, political and celebrity photography, living in the Upper West Side of New York for 60 years.

His image Mother and Child of his wife and new-born daughter was included in the 1955 exhibition The Family of Man. He famously photographed the 1959 Kitchen Debate between Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev in Moscow and 1960 portraits of Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable on the set of their final film The Misfits (1961).

Originally a photojournalist, he published over 20 books of photographs during his lifetime and had numerous solo exhibitions at institutions including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Musée d'Art Moderne in Paris and the Barbican in London. In 2002, a comprehensive retrospective was exhibited at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid.

Among his books are his witty and whimsical images of dogs, including Son of Bitch, To the Dogs and Woof.

He photographed the city with a sense of adventure and spontaneity, observing, "The best things happen when you just happen to be somewhere with a camera."

Erwitt worked into his 90s. "Photography is pretty simple stuff. You just react to what you see, and take many, many pictures," he summed it up at the age of 92.

Erwitt was married and divorced four times, to Lucienne Van Kan (1953 to 1960), Diana Dann (1967 to 1974), Susan Ringo (1977 to 1984) and Pia Frankenberg (1998 to 2012). He is survived by his six children, 10 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

His work can be seen on his Web site, Magnum (where he served as president) and The Ransom Center at the University of Houston, where he donated his archives of 47,500 black-and-white photographs in 2016.

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