The gentle irony of Elliott Erwitt takes on the Canal Foundation

Humor as a way of life.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
14 May 2024 Tuesday 11:05
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The gentle irony of Elliott Erwitt takes on the Canal Foundation

Humor as a way of life. Especially that of the daily human comedy, of his small domestic anecdotes and his street scenes, but also of the historical events that he captured with his camera. And of those dogs that he liked so much - "they are like people, only with more hair" - and those that he brought to the foreground of his images, turning their owners into the complementary object. The Canal de Madrid Foundation, as part of the PhotoEspaña festival, presents 135 images by Elliott Erwitt (Paris, 1928- New York, 2023), one of the great photographers of the 20th century.

Artist and photojournalist, author of the famous snapshot in which Nixon rebukes Khrushchev, an icon of the Cold War, with his finger, which he captured at a fair attended by the leaders and where he was going to take publicity photos for Westinghouse, or of the image of Jacqueline Kennedy crying for her husband in Arlington Cemetery in 1963. The Canal Foundation, with the help of the Magnum agency, to which Robert Capa himself invited her and which Erwitt chaired on two occasions, shows images of three areas of his work: people, animals and shapes.

Born to Russian Jewish parents in Paris in 1928, he grew up in Italy until he was 10 years old and after returning to France, in 1939 and in the face of the advance of Nazism, he went with his parents to the United States, first to New York, then to Los Angeles. An emigrant and only child, he was uprooted and photography helped him explore an uncertain world in which, while moving around cities, he developed a keen sense of observation.

In 1948 he worked as a janitor in exchange for classes at the leading New York School of Social Research, where he learned about European avant-garde photography, from Kestész to Brassaï. And he began capturing fleeting moments of strangers, everyday interactions, unexpected urban landscapes on the streets. At the age of 23 in 1951 he would be recruited for military service and upon returning to New York he linked up with Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa, who led him to consider photojournalism. And Magnum. He would be a photographer for big magazines like Life and Paris Match and would do campaigns for big brands like Coca-Cola, for which he did use color. He would also be a portraitist of icons, from Truman Capote and Sofia Loren to Hitchcock and Jack Kerouac and even Obama's inauguration.

The Canal Foundation confirms with everyday scenes, animals and landscapes through 122 small format images - its 'work photographs' - and 13 large formats, Erwitt's statement that “making people laugh is one of the greatest achievements. And when you can make people laugh and cry, alternately, like Chaplin, it is the greatest of all possible achievements. It is my supreme objective.”

Visual poetry of ordinary life in which a group of girls are like geese and a group of dogs, like people. In which the world is seen from the dog's perspective: many shoes and feet, which sometimes maintain surprising dialogues between them. In which six little children dance as a couple as if they were already imitating the roles that they will play as adults in life or in which three spectators concentrate on reading the small notice in the center of an empty frame of the Louvre while they leave aside all the masterpieces that surround them. Or in which a few women wait with their bags in the “lost persons area” next to a fence, without it being very clear if they are the lost ones or those seeking to recover a family member.

A discreet observer of others, dedicated in a certain sense to the contemplative life to capture capricious and absurd events of The Human Comedy - that is the title of the exhibition -, who assured that “solitude in company, that is what I like. “It’s good to watch people from a safe distance.”