Born in Paris of Russian parents, Elio Romano Erwitt spent much of his childhood in Italy. His father Boris Erwitt was an architect by training and his mother Evgenia, the daughter of a well-established Moscovian family, occasionally took up painting and drawing. At age 11, due to the growing anti-Semitism in Europe the family immigrated to the United States in 1939 on the last peacetime voyage of the Ile de France.
Elliott Erwitt studied photography at Los Angeles City College (1942-1944) and shortly thereafter began to support himself shooting weddings and babies, in addition to other odd jobs at the local soda fountain and bakery. Later on he was able to attend the New School for Social Research (1948-1950) studying film. After serving as a photographic assistant in the United States Army Signal Corps in Germany and in France, Erwitt returned to New York.
1950 was a fortuitous year for Erwitt in that he met Edward Steichen, Robert Capa and Roy Stryker, and ended up working for Standard Oil Company under the former head of the fabled Farm Security Administration. In 1956 Edward Steichen curated several of his pieces into the renowned “Family of Man” exhibit at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
From 1950 to 1952, Erwitt was a freelance photographer for Collier’s, Look, Life and Holiday. By 1953 he was an associate member at Magnum and became a full member in 1954. Over the years Erwitt has shot journalistic essays throughout the world and taken up numerous commercial assignments for Air France, KLM, and Chase Manhattan Bank, among others.
Erwitt’s initial claim to fame stemmed from his image of the “kitchen debate”—Nikita Khruschev and Richard Nixon arguing in front of a Westinghouse refrigerator at the American exhibition in Moscow in 1959. His most requested image, however, according to Magnum, is from the Civil Rights era in the United States. The image is of two water fountains: the first and obviously newer of the two is labeled WHITE, the second fountain is an older mechanism and designated for COLORED. A black gentleman hovers over the latter but looks over to the fancy fixture next to his. This haunting document is, like Robert Frank’s work, a pointed commentary of civil unjust.
Since the 1970s, he has turned much of his energy toward movies. His feature films, television commercials and documentaries include “Beauty Knows No Pain” (1971), “Red, White and Bluegrass” (1973) and the prize-winning “Glassmakers of Herat, Afghanistan” (1977).
Elliott Erwitt’s images are much adored for their levity, juxtaposition of characters—especially man & animal—and anecdotal moments. Mr. Erwitt’s work continues to be exhibited in museums and galleries worldwide and has more than a dozen published monographs to his name.