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Book review – Snaps by Elliot Erwitt

I love this book. Elliot Erwitt’s (b1928) photos are full of humour and humanity. And, the introductory writing by Murray Sayle and Charles Flowers gives interesting insights on Erwitt as a man and photographer. However, it is unlikely that Erwitt would approve of an art of photography student analysing his work:

Overall, Erwitt believes photography criticism is pretentious and particularly lambasts the idea of photography courses: “A waste of time,” he scoffs. “A visual sense is something you either have or you don’t.” (This is despite studying photography and film himself.) (O’Mahony).

A quotation I took to the OCA student Facebook page for discussion – unanimous disagreement with Erwitt’s statement amongst the biased audience.

Back to the book. It is called ‘snaps’ because it includes Erwitt’s personal rather than commercial work and it is the term he uses for this aspect of his work with his ‘hobby’ camera, a 50mm Leica. There are 200 photos covering 4 decades, organised in pairs to create visual puns. All photos are in black and white – Erwitt expresses a view that colour provides too much information. The work is arranged into chapters around themes of activities; for example, read, rest and point, look.

The work has a feeling of spontaneity, moments plucked from everyday life and celebrated through the lens.There is a lightness and humour, refreshing in the troubled times of 2016. It focuses on the brighter side of life and O’Mahony tells us that some have been critical of Erwitt’s work for this; ‘there have been whispers that his work is “light-weight”, “flippant”, even “inconsequential”.’ The consequence of the work for me is that it makes me smile, it is like a well-drawn comedy sketch. Even in his famous image of the confrontation between Krushchev and Nixon in Moscow in 1959 (Erwitt, p139) there is a heavy touch of absurdity.

Technically, the work is masterful; full of rich tones of light and shade, composed to draw in the viewer’s eye and make every part of the image count. There is purpose and economy about the work. Wonderful.


Erwitt E (2001). Snaps. 2013 abridged edition. New York, Phaidon Press Inc.

O’Mahony J (2003). Guardian [online]. Elliot Erwitt best in show. Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2003/dec/27/photography [accessed 17.3.16]

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