I was very pleasantly surprised to see an Elliott Erwitt retrospective at the Focke Museum in Bremen, Germany, a great local culture museum. The connection with Erwitt? I don’t know. It could be because one of the Bremen musicians was a dog, or because dogs are beloved animals here. But we don’t really need a connection. In any case, the retrospective was in the museum’s special exhibition space and was extremely well attended. The museum was outright crowded on a recent Sunday afternoon with lots of interested patrons.
Elliott Erwitt has an unusual background as an artist and photographer. Born in Paris to Russian emigres, raised in Milan and then the US, he has built a tremendous ability to approach a city or a place without assumptions of exoticism. He manages to find universal meaning in different places, some of them traditionally presented to the Western viewer through the exoticizing lens of the outsider, like Brazil or Iran. But not him.
And the dog theme as a common thread makes that skill more evident. If one doesn’t look at the photographs’ titles, it wouldn’t be possible to tell where they were taken, as they capture the universal trait of what it means to be human through people’s relationships with dogs, without any place-related stereotypes in the mix. The dog theme is rich also because, according to Erwitt, dogs make people more human. And indeed, in this series they are literal and metaphoric mirrors of people’s emotions and social existence in ways that show not just Erwitt’s love for dogs but also – and especially – for people, their vulnerability and inner life.
Erwitt is exceptional in that his commercial work and photojournalism has been eclipsed by the significance of his fine art photography. I am not surprised he defines himself an amateur as this ties with his insistence that he does not have preconceptions when he shoots his artistic work – just reactions. But I was especially moved by his definition of pictures as formalized looking. The conviction that looking and noticing is the essence of photography. And the lack of stark cultural markers in his dog photos is indeed a testimony to this shedding of preconceptions. The relationships expressed in these momentary visions of dogs show his reactions to something very deep and fragile.
If you have the chance to see Erwitt’s photos in larger sizes than the computer screen, don’t miss it. It really makes a difference to appreciate the tonality and richness, to admire the details and enjoy the allegories.