Everyone has different criteria for what good photography (or art) is. In fact, the descriptive word ‘good’ should just be taken out and replaced by not horrible art. Most artwork can be considered ‘not horrible,’ but there is hardly a singular photograph, painting, sculpture, etc. that has a universal stamp of approval on it. With that said, my personal criteria for photography generally leans more towards images that border on the unreal and fantastical, but are still somehow grounded in reality. Photos that are either staged or painstakingly “caught” after much forethought and waiting around trying to look inconspicuous. This may sound like paradox, but I think the work of photographer Elliott Erwitt is a perfect example to illustrate my meaning.
When I first saw this photo on a postcard in the wet lab, I literally did a double-take. Maybe a quadruple-take. Yes, that is a
pit-bull bull dog sitting on a man’s lap, but didn’t it at first glance look like someone photoshopped the dog’s head onto the man? Erwitt was a master at creating these comical photographs that really bring to life the idea that dog owners actually look like their dogs.
But in terms of the ‘criteria’ that had mentioned earlier, is this photograph not ‘unreal’ and ‘fantastical’? Those adjectives aren’t necessarily only used with creepy, goth-like images. I would argue that Erwitt sat and waited patiently for the exact moment when the dog’s head would be superimposed on its owner’s, and for the owner’s calves, hands, and feet to be positioned in a similar manner to the pit-bull sitting next to him. Moments like these are not staged, but (most) are probably not taken on the fly either. Before the era of photoshop, images like the one above were truly created by masters of the craft who knew how to wait for “the decisive moment,” a phrase coined by photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Here are some more of Erwitt’s work from his book Dog Dogs. Which is another book that I’m adding to my wishlist consisting thus far of The Architect’s Brother.
People are weird. And only the great photographer can bring that excellent weirdness out in a humorous, non-critical manner that makes the viewer appreciate that weirdness. It’s shown in these photos through the way the owners dress (themselves or their dogs), and even in the choice of dogs they have. This is only a small sample of the dog photographs Erwitt took–check them out!
I thought I’d also include some non-dog photographs that I love from Erwitt.
In the photo above, can you see how all the men are looking at the painting of the nude figure, while the lone woman on the left is looking at essentially the same painting, except the female in her painting is clothed? Curious situation indeed.
I believe this photograph was taken in the early 1950s, and was probably staged. Here is a response which I wrote for a photography course on this photograph. It’s not the best of writing, but it suffices in this context.
The photograph ‘California’ taken by Elliot Erwitt caught my attention immediately because of how its happy subject matter seems to contradict the images of desertion and emptiness of the other photos in gallery. ‘California’ is a black and white gelatin silver print of the reflection in a car’s sideview mirror of a 1950s couple laughing and kissing. The viewer can only see the couple’s faces, predominantly the woman, in the circular mirror; the rest of the photograph is composed of the window of the car and the beach that the car is parked in front of. The ocean waves and the side of the car are unfocused, drawing the eye back to the couple’s faces which are the only completely clear objects in the picture. The Hollywood-esque happy couple seem like the epitome of the California romantic dream: one can tell that the man is well-to-do based on the snazzy car he drives, and his suit and tie, while the woman is beautiful and manicured. The blurred background gives the image a dreamlike quality, as if the beautiful landscape is merely a backdrop. However, the catch in the picture is that it almost seems too fake, too superficial. Framing the couple with the mirror rather than in person (ie. a frame within a frame) makes it seem like a staged photo rather than one caught in the moment. This idea fits in with the 1950s era that the photo was captured in—outward perfection to mask inner turmoil? In addition, why is the photograph titled ‘California’? From the objects in the photograph, there is really no way to tell its geographic location. Rather, the image—the beautiful woman, the romance on the beach, cars, lights, camera, action!—represents a Californian lifestyle that was supposedly ideal.
Is this Elliott Erwitt’s version of Cartier-Bresson’s famous “decisive moment” shot? I don’t know if this image was staged or shot naturally, but it is definitely an homage shot to Bresson… but just look at the crispness and clarity of the silhouetted characters, and how the many tiny figures in the background (statues on the building, man under Eiffel tower, people walking on the right side of the frame) echo the characters in the foreground. The juxtaposition of the full umbrella of the jumping man and the inside-out umbrella of the couple. I love it– a dreary, rainy, muggy Parisian day that (by virtue of the exuberance of the jumping man) has become a fairytale.
edit: here is Bresson’s “decisive moment” shot, just for your comparison pleasure. Click on image to view it larger.