Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Elliott Erwitt: Personal Best @ICP

JTF (just the facts): A total of 112 black and white photographs, framed in brown wood with cream colored mats, and hung throughout the galleries on the main floor and in a series of connected rooms on the lower level. The works on view were made between 1946 and 2009; overall dimensions and edition sizes were not available, but many of the prints have been enlarged to nearly poster size. The exhibit also includes 4 glass cases containing a total of 14 books, 3 contact sheets, 1 hand made album, and 2 magazine spreads. Another open table contains 5 additional books, and 3 films (from 1968, 1971, and 1973 respectively) can be seen in a separate projection room. The show was curated by Brian Wallis. Since photography is not allowed in the ICP galleries, the images for this show come via the ICP website. (Elliott Erwitt, Pasadena, California, 1963, at right, top.)

Comments/Context: Before seeing this expansive retrospective exhibition, I must admit to being guilty of underestimating Elliott Erwitt. My opinion going in was that Erwitt was a talented and well regarded photojournalist with a light touch and a humanist eye, who often found moments of humor in everyday life; in short, a stock characterization, derived from seeing a grab bag of his work in passing over the years. As with comedic actors at the Academy Awards, photographers who employ humor often get taken for granted, as if what they do is somehow easier or less important than those who take a more "serious" or "conceptual" path. And given Erwitt's history with dogs, kids, beachgoers, and other whimsical subjects, I guess it is not altogether surprising that his reputation might be unintentionally skewed toward simple joys and small giggles.

What impressed me most about this selection of images was their consistency; across more than 50 years, Erwitt has composed literally dozens and dozens of iconic photographs (many of which I hadn't actually attributed to Erwitt in my head). This doesn't happen by accident or luck; my big takeaway was that Erwitt's compositional skills were indeed significant, and that his powerful ability to organize the contents of the frame was really what makes his voice so durable and original. His signature style is broadly inclusive and approachable, full of warmth, compassion and shared experience; he makes it look easy. But most importantly, Erwitt clearly knew where to put his camera, working to get the exact juxtaposition of subjects that generated time and again a seemingly effortless visual joke or a perfectly timed wry observation. And while this particular group of images is heavy on 1950s Europe, many additional clusters and patterns emerge in Erwitt's subjects: families and couples, dogs, nudists, the art world, political figures, and plenty of street images from all over the world. (Elliott Erwitt, New York, 1974, at right, middle.)

In general, I enjoyed this show far more than I expected I would, and I came away with a much deeper appreciation and respect for Erwitt's work. It is nearly impossible to avoid a few chuckles and guffaws while strolling through these galleries, but don't let the absurdity of it all mask the undeniable craftsmanship required to capture these seemingly endless moments of wonder.
Collector's POV: While this isn't a selling show, Erwitt's photographs are consistently available in the secondary markets and are generally quite affordable. Most have settled under $5000, with a few well known vintage works moving up to $10000. (Elliott Erwitt, Jacqueline Kennedy at John F. Kennedy's funeral, Arlington, Virginia, November 25, 1963, at right, bottom.)

Rating: ** (two stars) VERY GOOD (rating system described here)
Transit Hub:
  • Artist site (here)
  • Magnum Photos page (here)
  • Reviews: NY Times (here), New Yorker (here), Photograph (here), The Online Photographer (here)
Elliott Erwitt: Personal Best
Through August 28th

International Center of Photography
1133 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10036

No comments: