NOTE: This review first appeared on Faded & Blurred.
“To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place… I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.” — Elliott Erwitt
I could go on for pages about what I think of Elliott Erwitt’s body of work (spoiler: it’s brilliant). But this isn’t about his work — not directly. Rather, it’s about how two books present a portion of that work, made over a 50+ year period on the streets of two of the world’s most famous cities.
With Elliott Erwitt’s New York / Paris Box Set, teNeues has created a (mostly) fantastic addition to your photographic library from one of the most iconic and celebrated photographers of the last century. The two-volume slipcased edition is filled with brilliant images by Erwitt (now 87) at his playful best, offering views of Paris and New York that would likely go unnoticed by other photographers. “Erwitt’s subject is the happy accident,” writes Adam Gopnik in New York. It’s worth noting that the only text you’ll find in each volume, other than the photo index at the back, are the brief yet compelling forewords written by Gopnik (a staff writer at The New Yorker) that help to provide context for the work and the cities in which the work was made. The photographs are a love letter to stolen moments — a five-decade walking tour through the streets of New York and Paris. Whereas a photographer like Eggleston sees the ordinary as banal, Erwitt finds amusement, choosing instead to let the viewer in on the joke. As Gopnik notes, Erwitt captures “not decisive moments but self-delighted moments.”
Overall, the design and layout of each volume is clean and effective. The paper is a terrific weight and the finish renders details beautifully. As mentioned previously, the only text in each volume is the brief foreword (translated into Spanish, French, Italian and German). Photographs are basically on a grid with plenty of full-page images. I love the way that themes are often grouped and repeated throughout — Erwitt’s fascination with dogs, for example — or the wonderful sequence capturing a young couple at the fountain in front of the Louvre, reminiscent of one of my favorite photobooks, the superb Magnum Contact Sheets. Despite the stunning the photography, I still cannot understand the unfortunate convention of printing images as double-page spreads, only to have the main subject or focus of the image become lost in the gutter. I mentioned this in my review of Marc Lagrange’s Senza Parole, also from teNeues. Perhaps nowhere in either volume is this more offensive than in Paris, where the cover image is printed double-page, leaving the otherwise stunning silhouette of the dancer caught mid-air obscured by what may as well be a chasm between the pages. While I love the near-tabloid size of the books, the resulting 14×22 size of a two-page spread is likely larger than the images would have originally been printed. Several of the otherwise remarkable photographs are presented this way; not only does it take the viewer out of the photograph, it obscures much of the context that is so key to understanding the deftness of Erwitt’s eye.
“Guttergate” aside, there is much to love about Elliott Erwitt’s New York / Paris Box Set. If you are already a fan of Elliott Erwitt, this box set will remind you why. If you’re not, his charming view of everyday life is likely to make you one. As Gopnik writes in the foreword for New York, “The city sneaks up on us in pictures, and we are startled to see what it looks like even when what it looks like is just us doing what we really do.” Gopnik reminds us that Erwitt delights in capturing “not significant moments but serendipitous moments.”
All images © Elliott Erwitt.