"My first dog, Terry, had a great sense of humor," says Elliott Erwitt. "He'd do things to make me laugh. He was quite ugly—a mixture of all kinds of breeds, mostly Shepherd, and his ears were oddly crooked. He was a battle-scarred veteran of life." Listening to Erwitt reminisce as he putters around his Central Park West studio, his cairn terrier Sammy trotting after him, it's easy to forget that this modest, self-effacing man is actually one of New York's artistic giants talking about . . . dogs. It is a subject that has obsessed him, brought international fame, and allowed Erwitt, that most quintessential of New Yorkers, to capture the city in his own eccentric, inimicable way. As for the millions of canines who inhabit Manhattan's streets, salons, parlors, and pet stores, Erwitt has become their greatest portraitist.
What strikes you first about Elliott Erwitt is how much more intimidating his work is than he is. After all, Erwitt has been celebrated in one-man shows at the Museum of Modern Art, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Royal Photographic Society in Bath. Over the last half-century, he has published more than nine books, incisively documenting not just dogs but social mores, politics, and personalities in travels to destinations as diverse as Afghanistan and Acapulco.
The 73-year-old photographer was born in Paris to Russian parents but lived in California as a teenager. He began his artistic career in the 1940s while a film student in New York, and by 1951, Robert Capa had asked him to join the Magnum Photography Agency. Four years later Erwitt's work was featured in Edward Steichen's legendary Museum of Modern Art exhibition, Family of Man. At the time, photography was still struggling for respect as an art form, and many of Erwitt's contemporaries responded with pictures that were painstakingly composed and overly formal. Erwitt, on the other hand, reveled unselfconsciously in spontaneity and whimsy; his shots were refreshingly funny and real.
"The art world is a pretty humorless place, and Erwitt was a real pioneer," explains Edwynn Houk, whose gallery represents the photographer. "Up until Erwitt made his mark, the dominant approach to photography was using the camera as a tool like a window to show what anyone would have seen if they had been standing in that place at that time. But Erwitt's photographs are not about just looking—they're about position, vantage and timing. He understands how a camera sees. It is ironic that his photographs have a quality of humor and yet the intent is so serious. That's why the work lasts."
Indeed, as accessible as Erwitt's photographs seem, there is nothing simple about them. E.B. White once observed, "No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky." Erwitt has always been willing not just to be lucky, but to lie down on the pavement with his Leica to shoot a Chihuahua at the dog's own eye level. That kind of involvement is what gives his pictures their kick and kinetic energy. Add to that a wicked sense of humor and a singular point of view—he sees jokes that no one else sees (until they're on film, of course). And he's not above doing whatever it takes, which sometimes includes barking "to get the reaction I want," Erwitt admits."My bark is very convincing. Years of practice. They often bark back."
Somewhere along the way, Erwitt's immense trove of New York dog photographs became a distinct body of work—and an extraordinary portrait of the city, where he has lived for 50 years. Visitors to this small island tend to ogle the skyline, romanticizing it as the triumphant expression of man's conquest over nature. As Ezra Pound wrote, "No urban night is like night here . . . squares after squares of flame, set up and cut into ether. Here is your poetry, for we have pulled down the stars to our will."
Erwitt, meanwhile, is busy looking down. "I try to take pictures from the dog's point of view," he explains. "People are guarded, but with dogs you can always tell how they're feeling. They're not as complicated." Dogs are his way of revealing the inner life of the city.
Erwitt also manages to address a persistent local longing for community. There is something comforting about seeing the city as a place filled with connections, however transitory, and not just the confluence of ten million type-A personalities, all doing their own thing. Erwitt's photographs show touching emotional bonds: His daughter (the youngest of his six children) leans in with her whole body to embrace a shaggy Afghan nearly as tall as she is. But they show visual bonds, too: A mutt and his master sit side by side on a park bench, their silhouettes mirroring each other perfectly—except that one has perky, pointed ears. A woman's ash-blonde hair blows in the wind into the face of the terrier she clutches,whose ash-blonde coat looks almost identical, making it seem like the dog's head is perched on her shoulders. Erwitt is master of the photographic pun.
There is subtle social commentary in his work, too—nonjudgmental, certainly, but always delivered with a wink. The comic feverishness with which a poodle is primped for the Westminster Dog Show, for instance—its coat groomed as fluffy as cotton candy, the tips of its ears in curlers, a bottle of hairspray at the ready. And really, where else but Manhattan would a young fashionista take the trouble to coordinate not just her entire ensemble—slacks, socks, shoes—but even the sweater of her other dog to perfectly match her two Dalmatians?
Erwitt's new book, "Snaps," will be published this month by Phaidon Press. His prints are available at the Edwynn Houk Gallery, 745 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10151; 212-750-7070. Prices range from $1,500-$7,500.