Just a Snapshot?

The photograph that Elliott Erwitt made in 1953 of his newborn daughter and her mother in the family’s modest Manhattan apartment is among the most widely reproduced of its time, having appeared in venues as different as Edward Steichen’s seminal 1955 photography exhibition (and book) "Family of Man," and in magazines, on postcards and even in drug company advertisements. But if Mother and Child is a mainstay of modern photography, to the mischievous Erwitt, 74, it’s just "a family picture of my first child, my first wife and my cat," he says. "I still see it as a snapshot. But it happens to be a pretty good one."

The comment—wry, unpretentious—is vintage Erwitt. Half a century after taking that "snapshot," which helped launch his career, he’s celebrated for his photojournalism, which covers Nixon and Khrushchev’s 1959 "kitchen debate" and Jackie Kennedy at JFK’s funeral, and for his often whimsical street photographs. A new exhibition of Erwitt’s work appears until September 16 at Madrid’s prestigious Reina Sofia Museum. Fittingly, his latest, most ambitious book is titled Snaps, a collection of 520 images published last fall by Phaidon. But don’t call it a retrospective. "It’s a bunch of pictures," says Erwitt. "I think retrospectives are bad until you’re dead, and I’m still perpendicular."

The book includes Mother and Child, shot when his daughter Ellen was 6 days old and the photographer, just out of the Army, was 24. He had been taking pictures since high school—he was born in Paris, lived in Italy and moved at age 11 with his family to Los Angeles—and was already associated with the renowned photo agency Magnum, which entered the picture in a competition. It won a prize, but Erwitt declined the honor because the sponsor wanted to copyright the image and thus receive any future royalties. "That’s probably one of the smartest things I’ve ever done," he says of his refusal. He jokes that the image paid for Ellen’s education several times over.

Ellen Erwitt, now 48 and herself a mother of two, Sam, 10, and Max, 9, lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and owns a photography production firm. Mother and Child has been so popular, she says, "it amazes me how many people 'know' me and my family." As it happens, her parents divorced in 1962, and her mother, Lucienne Matthews, who is remarried and retired from her job as an airline agent, lives near her in Fairfax, California.

Elliott Erwitt, married for the fourth time and living in Manhattan, in an elegant Central Park West apartment and studio, fathered another five children after Ellen was born, three of whom also toil in what he calls the photography "biz." Erwitt himself has long labored as a commercial photographer, doing "workaday work" for calendars and car and software advertisements, bending his talents to "creative obedience," as he puts it. Meanwhile, he has pursued his art, or "amateur standing," which he says means taking "pictures of whatever interests me." He has little patience for elaborate aesthetic theories. "Photographers as a group are pompous asses," he says. "Photography is so simple that very often they need to use big words to justify what they do." One of his heroes is Henri Cartier-Bresson, who he says is "the most important photographer of our time" and yet "doesn’t posture."

Several years ago, the ever-industrious Erwitt realized that his voluminous photo files held hundreds of pictures of dogs—alone and with people—many shot at pooch level and inviting amusing comparison of master and beast. "When you walk around and take pictures, you see a lot of dogs, so they get into the pictures," he says. "I thought, well, there’s a subject, people are interested in dogs, so why not put it together and see if it can be a book?" He did. His 1997 book DogDogs has sold 300,000 copies.

Critics sometimes knock Erwitt’s photographs as slight or sentimental. They’ve said as much about Mother and Child, but the photograph has an undeniable appeal, whether it be the disheveled naturalism, which reflected a bohemian spirit then taking root in postwar American art, or the witty contrast of the cat watching the emotional intensity unfolding in front of it with cool, coiled remove. In an essay in Snaps, writer Charles Flowers recalls the impact the picture had on him when, as a young man, he first saw it in Life magazine. "I went frequently into its world," he says, adding that even today the photograph offers him the "gift of peace." Ellen Erwitt says the picture exemplifies "how beautifully simple a black-and-white picture can be," conveying "a feeling, a moment or story with no artifice."

Her father prefers not to explain the image. "What’s there to describe?" Elliott Erwitt says. "A picture’s worth a thousand words, right?"

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