When tears fell at John F. Kennedy’s funeral, when Russians hosted a parade for the 40th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution and when Che Guevara and Fidel Castro were solidifying their ascent to power, Elliott Erwitt was there to document it all.
On Aug. 15, the Harry Ransom Center erected a retrospective of American photographer Elliott Erwitt. Titled “Home Around the World,” the exhibition features hundreds of photographs, including Erwitt’s early work in California, more iconic photos set in New York City and Europe and some of his films. The exhibit will be on display until Jan. 1.
Although the Ransom Center acquired over 50,000 signed Erwitt prints in 2011, this is the first exhibit it has done featuring his work exclusively.
“This exhibit is not just [Erwitt’s] 100 favorite photos, but instead a more scholarly and comprehensive look at his life work,” said Sara Gaetjens, a volunteer docent at the Ransom Center.
The first photos of the exhibition were taken in California and are known for their use of natural lighting — a stark contrast to the staged lighting of Hollywood.
Other photos were influenced by Erwitt’s personal experiences. When Erwitt was young, his father moved to New Orleans, leaving him to fend for himself. The motif of the lonely boy recurs throughout the exhibit and is best showcased in his photographs of a young cowboy in Wyoming. The photo set ended up being so melancholic that the magazine commissioning the work asked Elliott to retake the photos with a more photogenic and happy child.
Erwitt’s past journalistic work is reflected in his photos of Cold War-era Russia, Dwight Eisenhower and Jackie Kennedy at her husband’s funeral. Some of Erwitt’s most influential work includes photos of Nixon and Kruschev during the heated “kitchen debates.” Nixon’s presidential campaign ended up using these photos without Erwitt’s permission, and when Erwitt sent the campaign a bill for the photos, they sent the payment — no questions asked.
English freshman Emma Williams, an artist herself, was particularly impressed with these photos.
“I think his historical photos have great depth and they really pull you into the events of the past,” Williams said.
Near the end of the exhibition, Erwitt’s serious subject matter transitions to heartwarming photographs of anthropomorphic dogs. Erwitt was a lifelong lover of dogs, so this subject matter is near and dear to his heart.
“I’ve always had a dog and my children have dogs. They make for especially good subjects and it is nice that they don’t ask for prints,” Erwitt said.
The exhibit ends with an analysis of Erwitt’s films, most of which have unusual subjects: nudist colonies, bluegrass musicians and Texas dance teams, to name a few. He transitioned into film during the 1970s because of the decreased relevance of magazines and the rise of networks like HBO.
“The kind of photography that I’m interested in no longer gets commissioned, especially with the magazines gone,” Erwitt said. “Magazines were my main support for interesting work and travel. Now the work is mostly commercial. There is always a need for commercial photos, but they aren’t as interesting.”
Erwitt has had a long career in photography and still enjoys traveling frequently and taking pictures in new locations.
“If you are versatile as a photographer, you will never get bored and you get to travel and continuously see new places,” Erwitt said. “It is far better than working in a studio every day.”