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Snap Judgments 

An new exhibit shows 50 years of wry and touching photos from Elliott Erwitt

Wednesday, Oct 31 2001
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The list of photographers who are household names remains regrettably slim, but there is a handful of sharp shooters who are known more for their pictures than for their names. Elliott Erwitt is one of the latter. Most of us are familiar with Erwitt's whimsical and witty photographs, particularly those with man's best friend as the subject: a tiny, tongue-wagging dog ridiculously dressed in a sweater, a furry terrier suspended in midair. While Erwitt is most famous for such joyful images, they are certainly not his only claim to fame. The globe-trotting journalist and tireless bon vivant has explored the gamut of human -- and canine -- experience in his comprehensive oeuvre, which ranges from doggie portraits to a poignant snapshot of a weeping Jacqueline Kennedy at JFK's funeral. The products of his keen eye are displayed in his massive new book, Elliott Erwitt Snaps, a collection of more than 500 images, including many never before published. In conjunction with the book's release, a selection of Erwitt's photos hang in "Elliott Erwitt," opening Nov. 1 at the Robert Koch Gallery, and in "Elliot Erwitt: Snaps," a retrospective of his work now showing at One Bush Street.

The 73-year-old photographer is described in Snaps' introduction as a "rare talent" by his longtime friend, journalist Murray Sayle, yet the accomplished image-maker is more modest, downplaying his gift as a "serious hobby." The son of a well-to-do Russian aristocrat and a poor Jewish socialist, Erwitt displays the ease of a man who is comfortable in both worlds. Whether shooting Marilyn Monroe on the set of The Misfits or taking an unsettling portrait of a young black boy with a wide, mischievous grin pointing a toy gun at his head, Erwitt builds on that "rare talent" with a heavy dose of luck at capturing seemingly impossible moments. His infamous "Kitchen Debate" photos, for example, caught on record a heated finger-pointing session between Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev in front of a Westinghouse refrigerator. Such unusual situations and playful juxtapositions are common in Erwitt's work: a crane standing in the same position as a faucet, a group of Hungarian schoolgirls clustered like a nearby gaggle of geese.

The culmination of more than 50 years of work, Snaps reveals Erwitt as both photojournalist and social observer. Organized into nine sections with single words as chapter titles -- Read, Rest, Touch, Stand -- and grouped by Erwitt to construct visual or verbal puns, the book includes historically famous shots as well as little-known photos previously tucked away in the artist's files. Sayle describes him as "the most amusable man -- he can see a joke, in words or images, better than anyone." It is that irrepressible humor and childlike curiosity that should make Elliott Erwitt more of a household name.

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Lisa Hom

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