Last week my wife received a call from her cousin saying he'd be in New York City for the weekend and would we want to go down to meet up. We both said yes! My wife would get to see her cousin and I would go to Erwitt's exhibit, which I'd written about on my website just a few days earlier. Not only that, but we'd also be in NYC during the Rapture, which could only make it more fun. In the end my wife came with me to the ICP on Saturday morning, and we enjoyed it so much that the one hour we had planned for it stretched to three, including a nice lunch in the surprisingly affordable ICP cafeteria (I recommend both the salmon sandwich and the tandoori chicken with chick pea salad).
The exhibit is divided into two floors with over 100 of Erwitt's favourite photographs. Here is my first and only beef with Erwitt: An artist is not always the best judge of his/her own work. I felt some of his images didn't really belong in this exhibit when compared in quality with the majority of the rest; I'd be walking down the wall and all of a sudden I'd come upon a photo that made me think huh? how did this get in here? I'm sure those few photos are favourites for some reason or other, but I suspect it's emotional, not objective appreciation of these photos.
Having got that out of the way, everything else I have to say is positive. The prints were all very large; I estimate the majority were 12x18 inches with quite a few 18x27, and the printing was superb (though I warn you I am not a printer, just a lowly photographer). My wife remarked about the wooden frames being very nice, though I hardly noticed them; if I had to guess, I'd say they were cherry wood or walnut. The lighting was invisible, meaning I found the prints to be well illuminated and was never distracted by reflections off the cover glass (as I am in most other photography exhibits), so I never saw the light, only the photos. We were lucky the gallery was mostly empty so we had plenty of space and time to admire each photograph, and I confess to grain peeping a few times...don't tell anyone!
Photo from elliotterwitt.com
But what about the images, man? Tell us about the images! Yes, yes, I'm getting there. So the images.... Are you a Street Photography fan? A dog lover? Do you enjoy the nostalgia of post war Europe in the '50s and '60s? What about political imagery? All of these are represented to some degree in Erwitt's photography, and dare I say that he was a Jack of all trades, master of many. As a street shooter myself, I thoroughly enjoy his humour and timing. Unlike the godfather of street photography, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Erwitt's timing is less about the decisive moment, and more about the right moment in the right place. A crane (the bird) stands close to a pipe with tap on the end, both curving around sharing the same pose; a couple is reflected in the side mirror of the car where they are cuddling; another couple smile for the camera through the glass from the back of a tram, unaware that the true subject of the photo is the boy hitching a free ride below them. And the humour, oh, how good Erwitt is at making you laugh; my wife and I let out loud giggles at some of his best, elbowing each other in the ribs as we did so.
Going to the bottom floor we were met by a group of his political images (Che Guevara, Nixon burying his finger in Khrushchev's chest, Jaqueline Kennedy weeping at JFK's funeral, the white/black water fountain...) on three walls, most of which are printed in the larger size. Turning around to the fourth wall there are two photos with Marilyn Monroe, one with the cast of The Misfits and another a lovely portrait taken in a dark room. Of interest to us photographers here are a few sets of contact sheets showing the images from the Marilyn, Nixon vs. Khrushchev, and JFK funeral, all with annotations in red marker made, presumably, by Erwitt himself. It's fun to play the game "which ones would I have chosen"; while there's no denying he picked the best ones, it's reassuring to see that not all his shutter clicks produced masterpieces, and that he sometimes got the exposure wrong, too. Sorely missing was an old camera, which seems to be a staple of these kinds of exhibits.
To round off the exhibit there are a few of his large photo books on a table, with chairs so patrons can sit down and peruse them without hurry. We spent a good half hour leafing through Erwitt's Paris, Erwitt's Rome and Personal Best. All of them show high-quality reproductions on nice matte paper, but fall short by neglecting margins for most images and making many horizontal images double-truck, effectively cutting them in half with the spine. I don't understand how publishers are allowed to get away with this semi-criminal activity.
If you are in New York City between now and August 28, you owe it to yourself to see this exhibit. I had a smile on my face throughout the whole visit—that's just how fun Erwitt is.
Note: Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site. More...
Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Joe: "Totally agree, on all counts. I just now got home from the ICP and I'm still feeling the effect of that wonderful show. Is there a well-known photographer who's more delightfully whimsical? Well printed, well displayed, great mix of classic familiar pieces and surprises. I was glad to see they were printed large, too. I'm going back."