Addict (drugaddict) wrote,

works point toward the efforts of photographers and artists as varied as Garry Winogrand, Stephen Sh

Pioneer of the Social Landscape

Eyes Open to Many Sides of Life, Not Just the Hilarious </nyt_headline>

Elliott Erwitt has probably taken more laugh-out-loud pictures than any other photographer in the history of the medium. At 77, this veteran photojournalist and obsessive traveler has made a long career of capturing life's comedic parade and fleeting sight gags. He has been justly compared with comic geniuses like Harpo Marx and Charlie Chaplin and seems never to have met a child or dog that he didn't want to photograph. Evidence of the latter affinity include books of photographs titled "Son of Bitch," "To the Dogs" and "Woof."



But an exhibition at the Edwynn Houk Gallery demonstrates that Mr. Erwitt is much more than photography's leading funny man. Its very title - "Elliott Erwitt: Pioneer of the Social Landscape" - fires a warning shot across the bow of received opinion.

Yes, several of Mr. Erwitt's most famously amusing images are included among the show's 61 vintage photographs. They confirm once more how much funnier existence became after the invention of cameras, and how for Mr. Erwitt, funny is not just a matter of gesture and expression: it is also about form, space and scale, as well as human pathos, regardless of species. One Erwitt classic is an image of a small, anxious dog dwarfed by the boots of his owner and the colossal front feet and legs of a Great Dane. Another shows a woman seated behind a shelf on which rest two turnips exactly where her breasts should be - a kind of readymade exquisite corpse.

As sharp as a New Yorker cartoon and as lushly empty as a de Chirico is his picture riffing on a fig-leaf theme played out before a fortresslike doorway in Florence: two marble nude statues have the real thing and, between them, there's a policeman whose white-gloved hands just happen to be clasped in front of him. Still, a Rockwellesque cuteness can accrue, as in the well-known image of two adults and a child in a museum intently studying a small white card at the center of an empty frame while an adjacent portrait looks on.

Many more of the images at Houk tend toward the serious. Taken mostly before 1960, they show an artist as deeply in touch as Robert Frank with the tensions and conflicts of postwar America, and also attuned to the nuances of life elsewhere.

Traveling around the United States, Mr. Erwitt, who was born in Paris and grew up in Milan and Los Angeles, recorded an array of fear-based hatreds in images of Jim Crow signs, anti-Communist protesters and male conventioneers with mock breasts pinned to their shirts. He saw loneliness and banality, not grandeur, in the American West.

Farther afield, he captured complacent Englishmen in their first-class train compartment, a wistful boy clinging to the back of a bus in Barcelona and a group of black G.I.'s in Germany, sitting with a blond woman whose partly obscured face has a gently monstrous mien like a beautiful Cyclops.

While Mr. Erwitt's dog images seem to presage William Wegman, other works point toward the efforts of photographers and artists as varied as Garry Winogrand, Stephen Shore, Robert Adams and Thomas Struth. Perhaps most telling of all is a self-portrait from 1945, the year Mr. Erwitt turned 17 and was a student at Hollywood High School, working part-time in a commercial darkroom.

With his tall body turned slightly away from the camera and his face, half cast in perfect darkness, looking right into it, he is a determined, even angry presence. His clenched left hand, probably holding the shutter release, provides the final touch. Altogether he exudes a precocious ambition and clarity that he has been making good on ever since.

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