Given the ceaseless wars, avoidable disasters and recurrent tragedies of modern life, photographers can be forgiven for becoming cynical about human nature. After one too many oil spills or mass shootings, pretty much everyone gets more jaded.
Except Elliott Erwitt. Seventy years of professional shutter snapping have neither dimmed his enthusiasm for camera work nor curdled his disposition. He’s photographed his share of pain and injustice, but at 87 he’s still strolling the sunny side of the street. He uses a walker to get there, but never mind. He’s upright, quick with a quip and still moving.
For the recent opening of “Regarding Elliott” at Weinstein Gallery in south Minneapolis, he and the walker and an assistant got on a plane and showed up. An affectionate selection of career-spanning Erwitt classics, spiced with some unfamiliar and offbeat gems — including charming portraits of Weinstein director Leslie Hammons and owner Martin Weinstein with neighborhood dogs — the show runs through Jan. 9.
Though very active in his New York studio, Erwitt has curbed his exuberant pace. A bit. He missed the festivities surrounding his fall shows in Houston and Atlanta, but for two exhibits in Paris he showed up. It was Paris, after all.
He passed on the recent debut of two shows in Russia. But offered a chance to photograph in Cuba this summer, he took it. His 1964 photo of Castro greeting a gaggle of admiring schoolgirls from the back seat of a car is a classic. And, who knows, there was always the chance that the auto Fidel and Elliott were riding in back then might still be on the road. So he showed up in Havana again for the first time in 51 years.
Familiar and lesser-known
The Weinstein’s 39 photos are a judicious mix of the known and the not-so-recognizable Erwitts, all of them defined by his keen eye and the droll wit that has long shaped his images.
One room is, loosely speaking, dedicated to classics and celebrities, including his famous photo of two 1950 North Carolina water fountains, one a spanking new high-chromed box labeled “White,” the other an old-fashioned chipped and stained bowl labeled “Colored” into which a black guy dips his head.
Next to it hangs a 1954 photo from Arkadelphia, Ala., of a black congregation in a bare-boards church where a white-Jesus picture hangs near the pulpit from which a black speaker addresses the congregation.
Beside those early intimations of the civil rights movement hang photos of then-presidential candidate John F. Kennedy, in 1960, and his bereft widow clutching a folded flag at Kennedy’s grave a mere three years later.
Flashing forward to 1964, Erwitt encountered Castro, and a roguish Che Guevara smoking a cigar. He found young, pre-dissolute Andy Warhol in a limousine in 1966.
Of course, he was on the scene in 1954 when Marilyn Monroe stepped onto a New York subway grate and set men’s minds racing as her white skirt flared. Always cued to the big picture, Erwitt’s photo does justice to the actress’ legs and to the oglers gaping at them.
Finding the silver lining
The second room is papered with images of New York, Rome and Paris. Large, grainy images of the latter two lend a newsy aura to the otherwise picturesque. There’s also a charming portrait of Erwitt himself, taken in 1951 when he was a uniformed G.I. stationed in Karlsruhe, Germany. Already he’s posing with a bunch of kids who are exactly the sort of fresh-faced innocents featured in so many of his later pictures.
In an inspired moment, gallery director Hammons has hung, side by side, his 1954 photo of fire escapes in Hoboken, N.J., draped with lines of sheets and next to it his droll 1978 Vatican City picture of lines of priests lavishly wrapped in white linen and shimmering brocade.
Tender moments and gentle humor define the third section. Never intrusive, mocking or harsh, the pictures include a couple cuddling at a Los Angeles marriage license bureau, sweetly befuddled grade-schoolers in dinner-dance class, a wedding in Israel, a man pushing a baby carriage beside Parisian models in bridal gowns (hmmm) and a silhouette of Erwitt’s first wife pregnant with their first child.
Born in Paris, raised in Milan and Los Angeles, Erwitt lives in Manhattan and is at home anywhere. While he’s seen life’s dark side and knows the proverbial mean streets, he still expects a silver lining and is always on the lookout for an opportune sunbeam.