Dogs and humor. Nobody took them seriously in photography until Elliott Erwitt made them big-time.
Even if you don't recall his name, you may have seen Erwitt's classic photo of a bitsy dog in sweater and tam dwarfed by a woman's stylish boots and the monstrous legs of a Great Dane, or his jumping dog beside a flat-footed guy in a trench coat, or the blond Borzoi wearing a satin-rose collar.
For more than 60 years, the New York-based photographer has been focusing on pooches -- and much else -- from the streets of Paris to the beaches of Rio. He even snapped a few dog pictures recently in Minneapolis en route to the opening of his charming photo show at Weinstein Gallery through Jan. 9.
All of the show's three dozen pictures are in black-and-white. Besides dogs they feature 20th-century celebrities including Marilyn Monroe (several), Grace Kelly, Marlene Dietrich, Che Guevara and boxers Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. His street shots of Paris, New York and elsewhere often show people dancing, embracing or celebrating. Altogether, it's an upbeat exhibit that brings out smiles. Unfortunately, his local dog pictures aren't included.
Dogs are an avocation, of course, and not Erwitt's bread and butter. That would be the photos he takes for governments, news organizations, ad agencies and other clients that keep him on the road much of the year. At 82, he remains in demand for photo shoots worldwide, especially Japan, he said during a recent chat.
His name is so well established that some recent campaigns have asked him to sign his name to the ads he shoots. Asked what he thinks about such commercialization of his reputation, he shrugs.
"It's OK with me," he said. "It's better than robbing banks. And less dangerous."
Not brain surgery
Born in Paris in 1928, Erwitt spent most of his first decade in Milan. Because Europe in the 1930s "was not a healthy place to be," his family moved to the United States, settling in Los Angeles. After graduating from Hollywood High School, he studied film and photography at Los Angeles City College and later at the New School in New York.
"I can't say I studied anything, but I attended school," he said. Downplaying his talent in photography, he added, "it's not brain surgery."
After a stint in the U.S. Army, he established himself in New York, where photo magazines were thriving. In the early days he shared a studio with the soon-to-be-legendary street photographer Robert Frank (who is seen in a 1950 photo in the Weinstein show, wearing a Halloween costume of prison stripes). In 1953 he joined Magnum, a new photo agency that grew into an international powerhouse. Many of the now-famous photographers of the era were pals, including Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose brilliantly framed and apparently spontaneous photos defined the aesthetic of the time.
"He was a real mentor, the gold standard," Erwitt said of Cartier-Bresson.
Erwitt's assignments took him from Moscow, where he photographed Soviet missiles in Red Square, to Siberia, where he found an amusing wedding party, to Hollywood, where he captured Monroe in a moment of sunny domesticity, and into the American South, where his image of side-by-side "White" and "Colored" water fountains seared the indignity of segregation into the public mind.
"I like human manifestations," he said. And "having been around for a long time, I've done a lot of things."
His life outside photography has been full, too. Married four times, he has six adult children, four of whom are involved at least tangentially with his field. He has a dog, of course, an aging cairn terrier who has to be walked three times a day and is "too unruly" to travel.
Erwitt prefers film cameras but uses whatever the job requires, including digital equipment and color film. Though he is thriving, the photographic business is "not what it used to be" for younger photographers, he said. Exhibition opportunities are limited and magazines have become "useless."
With a résumé that includes shows at the Museum of Modern Art and the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, Erwitt doesn't lack for opportunities. Besides the Minneapolis exhibit, he has a show in Dusseldorf and one opening in London in February. He has published more than 30 books, including eight of dog pictures, and is about to release his third volume of color still lifes of the Christmas tree at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
And he's busy talking up "The Art of André S. Solidor," which he published last year. A send-up of the loopier aspects of the contemporary art scene, especially the contrived and oversexed photos of Cindy Sherman, Jeff Koons and "the usual suspects," the book features luridly colored and hilarious photos taken by Erwitt in the guise of his alter ego, Solidor, whose initials, he noted, "spell A.S.S. for short."
"Live and let live," he says of today's art scene. "It's good to have something to dislike. Or to like."
Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431