Roger Overall is a remarkable photographer. He lives up the road from me. When he told me he was going to Austin Texas USA to hear Elliott Erwitt speak, I had the good sense to ask Roger to write a piece for this blog. Thank you Roger for writing such a personal & universal piece.
[Roger selected one photo by Erwitt, the middle one. I added two others, just to encourage you to look at Erwitt’s work.]
Inevitably, somebody fell for it.
“What’s with the egg?” a lady in the audience asked.
“What egg?” Elliott Erwitt responded.
“You have a fried egg on your lapel.”
“I have a fried egg on my lapel?!”
It’s a fake, bought in Japan, pinned to Erwitt’s dark blazer because he “likes to be interesting”.
Elliott Erwitt was born in Paris 82 years ago…
… lived in Italy, escaped from Europe to the US on one of the last boats out during World War II. Became one of the greats of modern photography. Elliott Erwitt has produced some of the world’s most famous and iconic images, including photographs of some of the most famous and iconic people in history - he’s already interesting without the egg.
Speaking at Blanton Art Museum in Austin, Texas…
… at the invitation of the newly established Austin Center for Photography. It was a rare opportunity to hear one of the greats deliver a lecture - in Erwitt’s case, possibly the only one I would ever get.
So I flew 5,000+ miles to be there, building a visit to close family in Houston around it.
The timing of the lecture was prescient.
When the talk was announced, I was going through a transition in my career - or, to be more precise, finalising the direction of that transition. The consequences of the planned change were significant for my business, my development as a photographer, & my home life.
I’d be abandoning the safety (& mediocrity) of a bland approach to corporate photography - based on tastes of my local market - in favour of a purely documentary approach - based on my own preferences.
Faced with enormity of the implications the change would bring, I was wavering…
The announcement of Erwitt’s lecture appeared to be a soft nudge - a gentle “” from the gods of silver halide and pixels. It would have been rude not to have bought a ticket to attend.
Never was I more ready to hear the secrets of documentary photography…
… eager for rich insights Erwitt would provide. Each one would be a beacon, a signpost to how to produce great documentary photography - culminating in a solid blueprint for my glorious future.
Oh dear. The lecture was never going to live up to that, was it? In fact, I learned nothing I’d hoped for from the lecture. Not a single thing. However, while the lecture itself was barren ground, the experience of it produced a valuable lesson.
First, I should explain why Erwitt’s presentation was so disappointing…
I draw upon memories of another disappointment. Walking down Congress Avenue, on the way back to hotel after the lecture, “Layla” [YouTube here] started up in a bar. Electric version, not acoustic. You know, the real one, the plugged-in one… One of my all-time favourite songs.
I remembered the last time I heard it. Eric Clapton was playing it, in the flesh. Not just for me, you understand. He was playing at Cork’s annual month-long summer music festival. My wife was sent by a newspaper to review the concert. I had the extra ticket.
The concert was memorable - if only for that single song. Towards the end, Clapton & band started “Layla”, played it to the finishing note, right through the long coda. It made the entire concert worthwhile. More, it added to my life experience. I’d heard an iconic song played by the man himself, including the tail end that radio stations generally erase.
It wasn’t an event to change my outlook on the universe. But it’ll get into my "Deathbed Top250" -around 220s.
[Back to Erwitt…]
Higher than tonight’s lecture with Elliott Erwitt will reach. The lecture may not even scrape into the Top250. Odd at first glance: I’m a big Erwitt fan; much less so of Clapton. How come I’ll remember Clapton & struggle with Erwitt?
There’s something magical about hearing a musician live on stage. We all know that. Whether you’re into opera or death metal, an in-the-flesh performance is far superior experience than listening to mp3 or iPod. U2 and Springsteen don’t sell out football grounds for nothing.
Watching a photographer…
… push a button on a MacBook & bring up the next photograph on auditorium screen just isn’t the same.
There are much better ways to view & enjoy photographs fully. Exhibitions, books, your own computer screen…
In a personal slideshow, a photographer can bring stories behind the photographs…
- insights into what drives their work
- explanation of their philosophy
- their views on challenges faced by individual photographers & industry as a whole today.
Photography is a meaty topic, Erwitt didn’t stray beyond occasional anecdote.
Those he did tell were interesting - rather than insightful. Delivered with engaging & charming dry sense of humour - that mirrors his photography.
Ultimately, his hour-long lecture was a slideshow of mostly familiar work - many of which were best-selling photographs he’s known for. Few were new work unfamiliar to his audience.
Paradoxically, most bands apply that formula when they perform live - if they have any sense.
We want to hear musicians play their hits, songs we all love, the oldies. Mostly, we don’t care for new stuff, particularly if the band’s trying something new. Give us “Layla” - better be electric version.
A lecture by a photographer is the opposite.
If they’re merely presenting a slideshow, it’s got to be work we haven’t seen yet. We know the old stuff. Most likely, we’ll have read the story behind it - certainly when it’s a living legend like Elliott Erwitt.
In Austin, I’d a chance to hear the man of stature, photographer of intellect & intelligence, an artist whose work is significant & beautiful, deliver a lecture. Sadly, we got a brief discussion of some of his most famous work. Ultimately it added little to what we already knew.
Certainly, it didn’t help me…
… with any grand documentary photography scheme. It gave me no insight into the place, role & merits of documentary photography for corporates. No blueprint here. An "eminence grise" of the profession simply recounting his greatest hits.
Oh well, at least I was able get a signed book in the foyer afterwards (albeit a cheap one: I’d left wallet in hotel room).
Standing in line, with a copy of Elliot Erwitt’s "Hands" (diminutive booklet compared with some of his other publications) I watched people ahead of me write their names on blue Post-It notes offered by one of ACP’s hierarchy.
"Write your name clearly & fix it to the page you want Elliott to inscribe."
An older lady in front of me wrote out a quote she wanted Erwitt to write & sign. At signing desk, Erwitt’s minder took the book, glanced at the Post-It, removed it from the book.
“He doesn’t do that,” frostily.
Older Lady had to make do with her name - just like everyone else. I thought it cheeky she’d even tried to put words into Erwitt’s mouth. Insulting even. This thought sparked another & another… Suddenly, I was richer for the experience of the lecture…
I hadn’t heard what I’d wanted to. I’d heard what Elliot Erwitt was willing to tell. Just as he wouldn’t validate anyone else’s words, he wouldn’t have the content of his lecture dictated to him. He did what he did, and if I didn’t like it, tough.
For 82 years, Elliott Erwitt had gone his own way, done his own thing. It has made him a great in photography.
There is no blueprint; there are no answers.
Success is grounded in uniqueness. Uniqueness cannot be taught.
If I’m going to make a success of corporate photojournalism, I’ll have to do it my way; find my own footing - make my own choice of lapel decoration.