14 Lessons Elliott Erwitt Has Taught Me About Street Photography
If you are not familiar with the work of Elliott Erwitt, you have definitely seen many of Elliott Erwitt’s iconic work all around the globe. As one of the original Magnum members and former president, he has one of the longest spanning photography careers- spanning over 50 years.
What I most appreciate about Elliott Erwitt is his wry sense of humor when looking at the world– as well as his straightforward and nonsensical philosophies about photography. When sharing his thoughts and advice, I think he is one of the most practical and helpful- especially based on his decades of experience.
I share some things I personally have learned from him in the article below.
1. Don’t plan too much
I think that personally as a street photographer, sometimes I fall into a trap of planning too much. I generally try to focus my attentions in projects (having a pre-conceived project in mind when shooting in the streets) but I often find it also takes away from the shooting experience at times. I think it is all a balance: one needs to work on projects and be focused, but at the same time not plan too much.
Erwitt shares his thoughts on how he doesn’t plan too much before going out to shoot:
Interviewer: As an on-going project, is your study of dogs a way of documenting the relationship between animals and humans?
Erwitt: I don’t start out with any specific interests, I just react to what I see. I don’t know that I set out to take pictures of dogs; I have a lot of pictures of people and quite a few of cats. But dogs seem to be more sympathetic.
Erwitt has a fascinating way of editing his work and creating books. His methodology is that he just goes out and shoots whatever he finds interesting, and after looking at his archives of images– then he creates books/projects based on the shots he already took.
I personally prefer a more methodological approach (starting off loose with an idea, but then pursuing it more diligently) but I think there is also merit in the way that Erwitt works.
I think at the end of the day, it all depends on your personality. If you prefer to have more of a goal, structure, and pattern– then working in a project-based mindset may be advantageous to you. However if you consider yourself more of a free spirit and don’t like to work feeling restrained- the Erwitt way of just reacting to what you see may be better for you.
I recommend you to try experimenting both approaches (and even combining them) and seeing what works best for you.
2. Wander around
One of the best things about street photography is to be a flaneur– someone who wanders around without a specific destination in mind.
Based on my travels, I have found the most beautiful and scenic places this way. Erwitt also shares how he enjoys just wandering when going out to take photos in the streets:
Interviewer: How do you approach a city like that – do you plan something particular or just wander and watch?
Erwitt: I just wander around. Having been raised in Italy myself, in Milan, I have a particular affinity for the country. I come at least two or three times a year – Italian is my first language. This book is just random pictures of Rome – there is no shortage of books about Rome but this will be more personal, there’ll be monuments, there’ll be Coliseums, of course, but there’ll be people, life!
I think that one thing that all street photographers should avoid is being tourists. One of the worst things about being a tourist is that it is too predictable and no fun. Sure you will be able to see all the famous monuments and sights– but those rarely make interesting photos.
Rather, the next time you travel or hit the streets– let your curiosity lead you. Go down roads that may seem a bit foreign, and you might be lucky enough to stumble upon great street photography shots (that nobody else has shot before).
3. Don’t just take photos of people
I think that as street photographers, we often forget to take photos not of people. I think that the best street photographs generally include people, but they don’t necessarily have to.
Some of the best photos of Elliott Erwitt don’t include any people at all- but show as he mentions, “…the manifestation of people”:
Interviewer: People are your main interest?
Erwitt: The manifestation of people, whether it’s actual people or what people do, it’s the same thing.
What exactly does Erwitt mean by the “manifestation of people?” He is talking about taking photos that show you humanity– whether it be photos of the actual people or not.
For example, one of the most powerful photos that I have seen by Erwitt is a photo of Jesus on the cross next to a PEPSI advertisement. To me, it is a critique on Western society. Who in their right mind would put an advertisement of sugary water next to Jesus?
When you are on the streets, don’t just focus all your attention and energy to people. Rather, look for elements that might juxtapose each other
and make a statement about society. This can be manifested through billboards, of things you find on the ground, urban landscapes, and other messages you might find.
4. Don’t take things too seriously
When one thinks about Magnum, some adjectives that come to mind are: hardcore, gritty, and raw. One might think about Robert Capa crawling on his chest in the mud, avoiding gunshots and grenades, to get shots of the soldiers in action.
However Erwitt (although he was a younger contemporary of Capa, Cartier-Bresson, and others) his style was vastly different. He didn’t go out and take photos in conflicts or war– but his photos tended to be more playful, humorous, and amusing.
Erwitt mentions in interviews that his colleagues in Magnum are generally seen as more “serious” photographers– who photograph more “serious” events. However Erwitt tries to not take himself too seriously:
Interviewer: You often seem to be having fun with your photographs, do you find it a playful medium or have you turned it into one for yourself?
Erwitt: Well, I’m not a serious photographer like most of my colleagues. That is to say,I’m serious about not being serious.
To be a great street photographer, don’t feel that you need to be hardcore like Bruce Gilden, William Klein, or Garry Winogrand and shoot head-on and in-your-face. Rather, follow your own heart and approach.
If you want to create more amusing and humorous street photographs that aren’t so serious– go ahead. If you don’t like taking photos of people and mostly of objects
go ahead. If you enjoy taking photos of the urban landscape– go ahead.
Don’t take yourself and your street photography too seriously– and remember at the end of the day you want to enjoy yourself.
5. Use different cameras for different things
One of the big questions that gets thrown around a lot is the debate between shooting digitally versus film. People from both camps generally argue on the pros and cons– and ultimate what is “better.”
I feel that at the end of the day, what camera, lens, film, or digital is a personal choice. And you don’t need to be stuck in the mindset that it has to be one way or another.
For example, Erwitt shoots both digitally and with film. The way he balances both is that he uses digital when shooting his commercial work, and uses film for personal work:
Interviewer: One of today’s main discussion points amongst photographers is about the use of digital photography; do you use digital cameras?
Erwitt: I do use digital cameras – but only for assigned work; for my own work, I don’t. A digital camera is a lot more practical and more convenient than film when you have to deliver a project.”
When I started shooting street photography, I first used digital cameras and loved the learning process and the instant feedback. It taught me a lot about the technical aspects of photography, and the fundamentals. I shot digitally the first 5 years this way, and loved every moment of it.
However around 2 years ago, I stumbled upon shooting street photography on film– and haven’t turned back. I prefer the challenge of shooting on film, the aesthetic, as well as the excitement of not seeing what photos you got (until you get them processed).
Ultimately I don’t think that shooting street photography on film will make everyone a better street photographer– but I can personally vouch it has helped me a ton. It has taught me patience when it comes to editing (I generally wait 3-4 months before processing my film), technical skills (I shoot fully manually on my film Leica), as well as discipline (taking photos of things more mindfully).
However at the end of the day, I still shoot digitally and on film. I use digital when taking fun snapshots of friends and family, slices from my everyday life, as well as what I am eating for breakfast. However I shoot all of my personal street photography work on film- and prefer the process.
So at the end of the day- I would say it isn’t about shooting either film or digital. It is about embracing both mediums
and using them for different things.
So if you shoot only with film, perhaps it is a good idea to bust out your iPhone when taking photos of your cappuccino. And if you only shoot digital on the streets, it might be fun to take the opposite approach and only shoot snapshots of friends and family on film. Experiment and have fun.
6. Fame is often beyond your own power
Erwitt has shot some of the most iconic photos in history– from the times of segregation (think of his “colored water fountain photo”), famous actors/actresses (think Marilyn Monroe), as well as the best dog photos.
However when it comes to creating an iconic image or becoming famous as a photographer, much of it is out of your control.
For example, many of Erwitt’s shots are so famous because he happened to be alive during some of the most eventful things in history (like his photo of Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev, the chief of the Soviet Union). Not only that, but because some of his photos happened to be used at the right time– they have been now widely circulated and part of the public consciousness:
Interviewer: An iconic picture is probably taken in an exact time, in a rare moment. What is necessary to shoot an iconic picture?
Erwitt: I do not think that you get up in the morning with the goal to take an iconic picture. It simply does not work that way. Perhaps you get lucky enough to get a picture that is good and that gets good use and is then seen by many people. I suppose a picture has to be seen by many people before it can be iconic. That is part of the definition.
Interviewer: You are the photographer known for many iconic pictures. How did that happen?
Erwitt: I take pictures, some of them get recognized, some of them get used and some of them get used a lot because the picture happens to be of an important subject or an important person.There are many reasons why a picture might become iconic. And not all of them are necessarily good.
Erwitt also shares the importance of luck in many different ways:
Interviewer: Have you had luck with taking many pictures?
Erwitt: Well, luck is certainly always been part of my budget. Absolutely, yes.
Interviewer: But you never can rely on it.
Erwitt: That is true. You cannot rely on it. But can you rely on a lot in general? No. Some people are just luckier than others.
Interviewer: How much luck does a photographer need?
Erwitt: Luck is always important and of course it depends on what it is that you do. If you are a war photographer, luck is really very important because you might get killed. When you are a studio photographer, it is of course a different kind of luck. These questions are quite subjective.
I am not saying that it is simply luck that helped Erwitt become a photographer with many memorable images. It was certainly skill plus luck that helped bring him where he is– as one of the master contemporary photographers.
Many of us struggle to get our images seen to a wide public. When I first started off in street photography, I remember when I would struggle to get even 50 views on a single photo of mine on Flickr. I would spam all the street photography groups that I could find on flickr– and hope that I would get people to comment and “favorite” my image.
However now fortunately through my blog- I have gained a strong following on social media and Flickr. Now most of the photos I post get thousands of views- and many more comments and favorites I could have even imagined to get even a few years ago.
However at the end of the day, it is the popularity of my blog that has brought me a following on social media– and less on the photos themselves. Not only that, but even my blog becoming popular has been a huge stroke of luck (when I started this blog, there were very few active blogs on street photography).
So realize that in life (and especially in photography) there is so much luck involved that is beyond your control. My advice? Don’t worry so much about gaining social media fame. Rather, strive to impress yourself. Also meet a few other like-minded photographers and share your work with them. Even in the time of Garry Winogrand and Joel Meyerowitz, they only shared their prints with very few people– and were content with that.
7. Focus on content over form
Great photos are a combination of content (what is happening in the frame) as well as form (composition).
One question I often think to myself is: “What is more important? Content or form?”
Surely both are essential– but at the end of the day, I think it is content that is more crucial than form.
In an interview, Erwitt shares that photographers should focus on the human condition and content over form:
Interviewer: What is your biggest wish for the future of photography?
Erwitt: My wish for the future of photography is that it might continue to have some relevance to the human condition and might represent work that evokes knowledge and emotions. That photography has content rather than just form. And I hope that there will be enough produce to balance out the visual garbage that one sees in our current life.
There are a gazillion street photographs on the internet, most of them aren’t very good. Even out all the street photographs I have ever taken, I think that I have probably only gotten around 2 good shots I am proud of. (my shot of the guy sleeping at the beach in Marseille, my photo of the red cowboy in LA). What I love about the shots is that I feel they convey a meaning and mood – and both having strong form (composition and framing).
However in street photography, one of the most difficult things is to capture both content and form powerfully in the same image. We often find fascinating characters in the street and take photos of them– but the compositions may not be so good. On the other hand, we might take well-composed photos of a street scene, but there is nothing going on in the photo– it is boring and without soul.
At the end of the day, I agree with Erwitt that we should as street photographers put more emphasis on content over form. I feel that photos that evoke emotions and the human condition are far more powerful and meaningful than just photos with good composition.
8. Put your photos on the ground
Erwitt has shot hundreds and thousands of photos in his career. How does he manage to look at all at them at once, and sequence and edit them for books? His tip: put them on the ground. In an interview regarding his new “Kolor” book, he shares his methodology:
Interviewer: How did you skim through over half a million images to select the 420 that were included?
I had help from a team of two. Most of these images were in storage. We had been at it for a long time. We made little prints and began putting them on the floor to begin sequencing. We were looking for flow. We began to cut down our selections from there.
Interviewer: Regarding layout, how did you decide to place the photos together?
Erwitt: I once again worked with designer Stuart Smith, who came in from London. We began laying everything out on the floor to see what we had.
The next time you want to edit your photos or select them for a book or an exhibition a good tip is to print them out as small 4×6 prints, and lay them on the ground.
Move around your prints in the order you imagine to see them in a book, and see which images flow together well– while what other photos look side-by-side.
Another option: I often edit and sequence my shots on my iPad, as I enjoy the feeling of moving around my images with my finger. But at the end of the day, using prints is a far better method.
9. Focus on the next shot
One of the questions that are often asked in interviews with photographers are: “What is your favorite photo?” or something of the sort. Most photographers I know generally have a personal favorite photo (or a certain image that is meaningful to them).
However Erwitt takes the opposite stance and shares that he doesn’t have a personal favorite photo– and rather he is more interested in the next photo he is going to take:
Misha: David asks: What was the most interesting shoot or subject you ever had to photograph? And what’s your favorite locale to work?
Elliott: The most interesting one is the one that is the next one, I hope. Which is going to take place in Scotland in the months of June and August. I know it’s going to be the best one, even though I haven’t done it yet.
Misha: Do you have a favorite picture of yours?
Elliott: I have a few pictures that I like, but I hope I haven’t taken my favorite pictures yet.
Misha: Is there anything out there that really makes you happy or proud knowing that you’ve done it, that you have it, after all these years?
Elliott: You can say that my pictures are like my children and I don’t have a favorite.
Whenever I hear photographers who say they don’t have a personal favorite photo it always feels like a cop-out to me. However I can still understand how having the mentality of not having a favorite photo is productive.
For example, I feel if you do have a favorite photo
you become satisfied with your work, and don’t work hard to hustle to get an even better shot.
Erwitt, with his career spanning over several decades has certainly used this framing to his advantage. Because he finds the most interesting photo the next photo he is going to take, he continues to strive to go out– and hunt for that next photo.
Don’t become attached to your current photos or portfolio– as it might prevent you from going out and taking even better photos.
Look forward to the photos you are going to take, rather than the photos you have already taken.
10. Hone your skills of observation
One of the things I love most about Erwitt’s work is that they show his immense curiosity and observation about the world. Some of his most famous images– anyone could have taken the photo (I’m thinking of his shot of the bird next to a water facet that look like one another). Rather than having fancy cameras and technical know-how, it comes down to having a sharp eye.
Erwitt shares that a photographer should always be keen of his or her environment– and never stop noticing what is around you:
Misha: Jennifer asks: You have been traveling around the world with a camera for almost seven decades. Do you still see pictures all around you? Or do you ever get tired of noticing?
Elliott: Noticing possible pictures — with or without carrying a camera — is fundamental to any working photographer. I would never get tired of noticing, although I would probably not be moved to take pictures that repeat and repeat.
Although Erwitt doesn’t have a favorite photograph of his– he has a favorite photographer, being the great Henri Cartier-Bresson. Erwitt describes the shot that got him started in photography ["The Quai St. Bernard, near the Gare d'Austerlitz train station."] and how he loved the emotions the photo evoked.
But more than that, how it was an act of observation which made the photo great
and how he realized he could do something similarly as well:
Misha: Who’s your favorite photographer, living or dead?
Elliott: The gold standard of photography remains, as it has always been, Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Misha: Do you have a favorite picture of his?
Elliott: Yes, I do. It’s a picture that sort of got me started in photography. It’s a picture that’s hard to describe in words. It’s a picture he took in 1932 at a railway station.
Misha: The one with the lines from a concrete overpass converging with the rails below and two people in the frame? ["The Quai St. Bernard, near the Gare d'Austerlitz train station."]
Misha: What was it about that photo that made you want to go out and take pictures? Could you elaborate a little about Cartier-Bresson’s photos and how they influenced your interest in photography? Was he a mentor like [Robert] Capa?
Elliott: The picture seemed evocative and emotional. Also, a simple observation was all that it took to produce it. I thought, if one could make a living out of doing such pictures, that would be desirable. Capa was [a mentor] in that he liked the pictures I showed him and thought I might be a useful addition to the nascent agency Magnum.
One of the things that is the most beautiful about street photography is that it doesn’t rely on having an expensive camera or exotic lenses. Rather, it comes down to having an observant and curious eye– for people and the world around you.
Therefore cultivate your vision and way of seeing the world. I recommend you to always carry a camera with you– because you never know when the best street photo opportunities will present themselves to you.
A fun exercise: pretend like you are an alien from another planet– and you have come to the planet Earth for the first time. Imagine how weird you would see human beings– and the urban environment they built themselves around them. As an alien– what would you find fascinating and interesting?
Keep that mindset to always be amazed by what you see around you.
11. Make time to take photos
Whenever I talk to photographers (either professional or amateur) they always say how they wish they had more time to take photos.
However in-between having a family, having a significant other, having a full-time job (in an office or even as a photographer), it becomes difficult to make time to go out and shoot.
Even Erwitt shares that the most important thing in his life is how to manage his time– so he spends more time out there shooting. He admits life gets busy, but one should never forget what is the most important– to photograph:
Misha: What’s important to you now?
Elliott: The important thing is management of time, because there’s so much going around.There’s so many things happening that take your concentration away from things that you want to be doing. What I want to be doing is taking pictures. Management of time becomes more complicated as your photographic life gets complicated.
I have always been fascinated with time-management techniques and how to become more efficient. However over the years, it isn’t about cramming more things to do into your schedule. Rather, it is about removing things from your schedule– things that aren’t that important.
For example, when I worked a full-time job at my office, I would always make lunchtime my time to shoot on the streets of the 3rd street promenade in Santa Monica (I worked there). However before I went out, there would always be something that held me back (oh, I need to send this one last email– or I need to add this one last point to my presentation). If I succumbed to work, I would end up having a “working lunch” and just have some nuts and Redbull at my desk– and never go out and shoot.
I then realized it was important to make shooting a priority– and that I could fit everything in afterwards (which was less important).
There is a fun story about a zen master who had an empty jar and asked his student to fill it up as much as he could with a bunch of big rocks, medium-sized rocks, small rocks, and sand. In the end, the student figured out the best way was to start off with the big rocks, and fill in the sand at the end.
The big rocks are a metaphor for the most important things in our life: our family, loves, and passions (photography). The sand at the end are emails, Facebook messages, and busywork.
So always make time to shoot by making it a priority. If you don’t make it a priority, you will never find time to shoot.
12. Let your style find you
One question we often search for as photographer is how to find our own personal vision or style. Rather than having grand philosophical ideas about his work– he takes a no-nonsense down-to-earth approach: he just goes out and takes photos and lets other people dictate what his style is:
Interviewer: Do you remember a point when your personal style had developed enough for you to stop trying to emulate your photographic heroes?
Erwitt: I am not conscious of a personal style of mine. I just like to take pictures. My ‘visual’ heroes are mostly painters. But I do not paint.
Interviewer: Despite having your own very distinctive style, there is nevertheless a great feel of mid twentieth century ‘America’ in your photography, even if the subject is elsewhere. They fit in with Robert Frank, Bruce Davidson, Lee Friedlander et al, even Harry Callahan – did you ever feel yourself stylistically aligned with your contemporaries?
Erwitt: ‘Stylistically aligned’ is the least of my concerns. Of the people you mention, I like much of their work, and some I don’t. Form and content is what counts for me.
I think in photography it is very important to have a certain aesthetic style (using similar equipment, post-processing, black and white or color) as well as subject matter you end up shooting.
However I think when it comes to finding your style, the more you hunt for it the more it will run away from you. An organic way of finding your style is simply going out and taking strong photos (with good form and content) and then letting your style find yourself.
So if you aren’t sure what your personal style or vision is– just go out and shoot. Over time, you will accumulate enough strong images that depict what subject matter interest you– and your personal vision. Then from there, you can start better understanding your photography and pursuing your vision even more strongly.
13. Focus on making books
Most of us (myself included) are mostly “online photographers” in which we take our photos and the majority of images we share just end up online and on social media networks. This generally causes us to focus on the single image– rather than on projects and sets of images.
Although Erwitt does shoot very much in a “single photo” manner– his ultimate ambition for his photography is to produce photo books:
Interviewer: So you’ve done more than 40 books now.
Erwitt: For the exhibit, we counted how many books might be in the showcase there, and we came up with 45. There may be more, I don’t know. But I would say my important books or major books, from my point of view, are the ones from the last 10 years.
Interviewer: Do you enjoy putting the books together?
Erwitt: Well, I try to justify my existence by doing [them]. Making books is a very specific kind of activity. It’s not really a collection of your best pictures—although it is—but it’s also a way of presenting your work so that it’s not repetitive, so that it flows, and so that it makes sense in a book. Working for a book is different than working for an exhibition or working for a magazine story, or for an essay.
One direction I am trying to take my photography is to upload fewer images on the web as single-images, and focus on projects and books. When I die, I doubt anyone will check out my Flickr, Facebook, or website. However if I have a book published, it will be able to live on for a much longer period of time (who knows if social media will be around a few decades from now).
So if you find yourself being stuck in just making photos for the internet– I also recommend you to try focusing on making a book. And you don’t need to get a fancy publisher either. I love self-publishing platforms like Blurb because you can still make a quality book without investing tens of thousands of dollars. Blurb and similar services has made book-making much more democratic.
The way I recommend putting a book together is to look at lots of photo books. Find photo-books that you admire, and see how they are put together. How did the photographer sequence his/her images? Which photos are big, and which are small? Why did a photographer pair two photos together? Are the pairing images similar or dissimilar? How does the photo-book flow?
Keep all these questions in your mind– and pursue making a book of your own. Making a book is the ultimate expression of a photographer.
14. Don’t be sloppy
One of the questions that Erwitt has been asked a lot in interviews is his thoughts about shooting film versus digital. He has pretty strong opinions on this. First of all, he shoots all his personal work on film. However for commercial work, he shoots it all in digital.
He personally prefers film and doesn’t hate on digital (simply because it isn’t film). However he notices that a lot of photographers nowadays are far too sloppy and don’t think enough when taking photos. He feels that digital has made it a bit too easy to take photos– in which people have stopped thinking as much:
Erwitt: The problem with digital photography is that it’s too easy. When things get too easy people get sloppy. And sloppiness is not a good thing in photography—even though photography is fairly simple stuff. When it was non-digital it still took a little bit of effort and thought. But now I think a chimpanzee with a digital camera can get pretty good results as well, but at least visible results. And I think that is the problem. Too easy, too much, and maybe not too much thinking behind it.
What Erwitt ultimately hates is the “sloppiness” that many photographers have
taking photos without thought of composition, framing, and the content in the frame.
I feel that one of the beauties of photography is now that anyone can take a technically good photo (even with a smartphone). However just because you have the tools to make a good photo– doesn’t mean you will take good photos. Erwitt encourages us to work hard in constructing our life’s vision through photography:
Misha: The playing field seems to have changed. Everybody who owns a cellphone is a photographer now. Do you think that’s going to change things?
Elliott: No, everybody is a photographer and that’s going to continue to be. It’s very seductive. But by the same token, everybody who has pencil is not necessarily a fine writer. It doesn’t mean you really have to know that much to get a picture. I mean,photography is not brain surgery. It’s not that complicated. It’s easier now than it was before, but before it wasn’t that hard. It was reasonably easy. It’s not the ease; it’s what you do and how you do it and how you construct your life and your vision.
It doesn’t ultimately matter if you shoot street photography digitally or on film. You can take terrible photos on either medium, and take great photos on either medium.
However regardless of what equipment you use– try hard to be deliberate and don’t be sloppy. Don’t take photos mindlessly. Have a certain vision and intent when you are taking photos. Be deliberate with your framing and how you position your subject in your frame.
The more you focus your photography, over time–your life and vision will be constructed around it.
Erwitt has photographed for over 70 years, and has created an incredibly strong body of work over his years. However he hasn’t ceased to photograph. His life is to photograph– and he makes it his priority in life.
Erwitt didn’t make out to become a great or famous photographer. Rather, he saw it as an enjoyable activity– and let his photography be an extension of himself. He is naturally curious, quirky, and humorous– and used his camera to capture that in the world around him.
I think what we can all learn from Erwitt is to not take ourselves too seriously as photographers. Let us simply go out, be curious, and explore the world (with camera in hand). Everything else like finding your style, finding an audience– will come afterwards.