Elliott Erwitt’s Very Own Personal Best

Elliott Erwitt—Magnum
Elliott Erwitt—Magnum
North Carolina, 1950. "This is probably one of my better pictures. The “White” and “Colored” drinking fountain united by one pipe, but a refrigerated one for "White" people and one messy, ugly, dirty one for “Colored” people. This was taken in North Carolina in the 1950's. It's a picture that's been used quite a lot in history books as an illustration to show graphically the myth of separate but equal, which was the mantra of the time in the South. "

At 83 Elliott Erwitt is still busier than ever. He recently completed major ad campaigns for Puerto Rico’s Board of Tourism, San Pellegrino, and Lavazza. He continues to shoot tons of personal work. This year alone, he’s producing three new books.

It’s no surprise that the International Center of Photography in New York has chosen to honor Erwitt’s years of work with the esteemed Lifetime Achievement Infinity Award. Past recipients have included the likes of Lee Friedlander, William Eggleston, and former Magnum colleague Cornell Capa.

Reflecting upon the moment he found out about the award, Erwitt, in his deadpan humor, remarks, “I was very pleased of course, but I must say that I’ve had four lifetime awards in a short period of time…so I guess my life must be over pretty soon.”

Erwitt has lived in New York City since the 1950s. Born in Paris in 1928 to Russian émigrés, Erwitt grew up in Italy and France and emigrated to the United States with his family in 1939. He was drafted into the Army in 1951 and continued taking photographs for various publications. Decommissioned from military service in 1953, he was invited to join Magnum Photos as a member by its founder Robert Capa, one of Erwitt’s early mentors. Since then, he served as president of the agency for three terms. Erwitt also began making films in the 1970s. His documentaries include the classic Beauty Knows No Pain.

When asked by TIME to reflect on his favorite photographs in a post honoring his work, he initially pointed to a stack of his published books but paused.

“I hope that most of [my favorites] are not in any book and they haven’t been taken yet. But I realize that we can’t show pictures that haven’t been taken,” he said.

Erwitt prefers shooting in countries far away from his home studio. “The ideal is to be away from my studio…to be in an interesting country such as  Japan, Brazil, or Ireland. These are my favorite places. And also in a place where there isn’t an internet connection because that’s a big distraction.”

How does he balance finding the time to make new personal work?

“I use a fast shutter speed.”

Out of roughly 45 books published throughout his career, we asked him to pick his very favorite.

“I suppose the book that has my favorite photographs is called Personal Best (teNeues). As the title implies, it has my better pictures. This kind of  book is a compendium of my work. Its just going through my checkered career and picking stuff out that seemed to be a good picture or story or good situation and them putting it together in some kind of design-y way — that’s how you do a book. Or at least this kind of book…a retrospective.”

On stories: “There are 520 pictures here or ones that have great stories….The stories in books ought to be what you perceive in the photographs. Not what you talk about. I think talk is pretty cheap in photography and I must say that photographers do too much of it in general.

(Pause to laugh) I know you’re having a tough time with me….I think great pictures start great conversations. It’s the stuff of life, just talking with the people that are around.”

The difference between a picture and a snapshot? “There is no difference. A good picture is a good picture. I call them snaps because it’s an appropriate name and it’s something that you do quickly and them move on to the next thing. Go snap and gone…there is no difference. The only difference is between a good and bad picture, or a boring picture. A picture that engages you, that makes you think, that gives you some kind of emotion, makes you laugh or cry. That’s a good picture.”

Elliott Erwitt’s Personal Best opens at the ICP May 20, 2011 and runs though August 28, 2011.

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