Elliott Erwitt, the photographer of American life, political history, starlets and humor, died on Thursday at his home in Manhattan, his daughter Sasha confirmed to the New York Times. He was 95.
Over a remarkably varied, peripatetic career spanning more than 70 years, Erwitt captured numerous famous images, ranging from the somber (Jacqueline Kennedy clutching the flag from her husband’s coffin at his funeral) to the glamorous (Marilyn Monroe, Marlene Dietrich) to the absurd (a glowing Coca-Cola machine amid a display of missiles in Alabama). Originally a photojournalist, Erwitt published more than 20 books during his lifetime and starred in numerous solo exhibitions at such institutions as 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.
He is also known for his many witty photographs of dogs, often from their perspective and distinct from their owners, in such books as Son of Bitch, To the Dogs and Woof.
Erwitt never specialized and worked as a freelancer throughout his life, taking on assignments in fashion, politics and celebrity (one of his most famous images is of the then vice-president Richard Nixon poking the Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev in the chest in 1959, during the so-called “Kitchen Debate” at a Moscow exhibition of American products). Some of his more recognizable work came from exploring New York, where he lived, on the Upper West Side, for 60 years. Erwitt photographed the city with a sense of adventure and spontaneity, living by his famous adage: “The best things happen when you just happen to be somewhere with a camera.”
Erwitt worked into his 90s, and was ever practical about his art. “Photography is pretty simple stuff. You just react to what you see, and take many, many pictures,” he told the Guardian in 2020, at the age of 92 and on the occasion of a new project to use one of his famous black-and-white photos, of a pair of plastic gloves hanging from a clothesline, in a campaign to raise awareness for protective equipment for healthcare workers.
Elio Romano Ervitz was born 26 July, 1928 in Paris, the son of Boris, a Russian Orthodox Jew and his wife Eugenia (Trepel) Erwitt, who both fled Russia for France after the 1917 Revolution. The family moved often – first to Italy, then back to France when Mussolini’s regime grew too intolerable, then to the United States in 1939, just days before the second world war began.
Boris became a salesman, and brought his son, then going by the Anglicized name Elliott Erwitt, along from New York to Los Angeles in 1941, selling wristwatches in small towns to pay their way. In LA, Erwitt began to develop his interest in photography, which he credited to his shyness. He began taking photos at 16 with an antique glass-plate camera, then upgraded to a Rolleiflex.
After graduating from Hollywood high school, he studied photography at Los Angeles City College and got a job in a commercial darkroom. He returned to New York in 1949 and began his professional career before the army drafted him in 1951 for the Korean war. While stationed with an Army Signal Corps unit in France, he took a picture of soldiers killing time in the barracks that, by his own account, changed his life. The photo won a Life Magazine contest, getting him published and netting a $2,500 check.
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.