On a stoop, a bulldog sits on top of his owner’s legs, creating the illusion that the body behind him is his own— a half-dog, half-human hybrid. This is one of Magnum photographer Elliott Erwitt’s most famed photographs, capturing the tone for which he became known; images that were endearing and amusing, sometimes ironic and absurd. Book after book celebrated these types of images, and his legacy as an artist seemed cemented.
In his latest book, Found Not Lost, Erwitt forgoes the type of imagery that initially made him famous in favor of more contemplative work, most of which has never been seen before. Now in his nineties, Erwitt spent two years digging through his entire photographic archive and examining thousands of images, breathing new life into the formerly rejected. In writer Vaughn Wallace’s introductory essay, he describes a note scrawled on a scrap of paper found nestled in the piles of negatives: “Don’t bother, pix useless,” it read. Some of those very photographs, once cast aside, are now printed for the first time in Found Not Lost.
Across his 70-year career, Erwitt built a reputation for his humor, and for capturing the absurd in the everyday. There were glamorous moments, too: photographing Marilyn Monroe between takes on The Seven Year Itch, documenting Truman Capote’s legendary Black and White Ball, or snapping a particularly devastating image of a grief-stricken Jacqueline Kennedy at her husband’s funeral.
Those pictures are not found here. Rather, writes Wallace, “What emerged from this relentless process of introspection is an Elliott Erwitt we haven’t met before, a photographer who has transposed his wonderful, famous style of seeing the world into pictures that are less readily summarized.” Furthermore, he adds, “There is wisdom, and, one feels, a wry confidence of this reimagining of a legacy, especially when that legacy is one that most artists would happily not disturb.”
In Found Not Lost, Erwitt’s distinctly high contrast style offers pensive moments and somber moments, with a particular focus on the form and function of the image itself. Shadows, blurred movements, and the shapes of people and their surroundings transform the everyday and the mundane into marvels. “Each image resonates with a profound appreciation of what it means to be human,” writes Wallace. There is a lot of happiness, too. Seniors dancing, children playing, and a couple making a silly face at the camera all capture that humanity. And there are a few moments of star power: if you don’t look closely, you might miss a snapshot of Nixon shaking someone’s hand with a big grin, presented across from a photo of a jubilant crowd holding “JOHNSON FOR PRESIDENT” signs.
Though this book marks something of a departure for Erwitt’s typical style, there are still moments of the absurd. In one, a bride and groom sit completely nude (save for the bride’s veil and the groom’s top hat) in the back of a car; in another, a woman looks lovingly at a plastic baby doll that she pushes in a metal cart. Almost all of the photos are presented without any context, save the name of the location and the year in their titles. The result is a whimsically surreal world: a world that was once lost, but thankfully found.
By Christina Cacouris
Christina Cacouris is a writer and curator based in Paris and New York.
Elliott Erwitt, Found Not Lost
Published by Gost Books
Book available here.