I'm glad to see this since Erwitt is one of my all-time favorite photographers. But it strikes me as odd. Erwitt's vision is quite out of step with current photo fashion. When it comes down to it, many of his best photographs are simple one liners.
By one liner I mean a photograph whose meaning is composed around a constructed narrative with a relatively narrow interpretation. Such compositions do not fall out of the sky. The ability to walk around with a camera and pluck them from reality is a rare gift.
Erwitt's photos check all the one-liner boxes. They often depend on clever juxtaposition,
or matching this with that,
or perhaps using a sign for comedic effect.
I think that if anyone besides Erwitt shot the photos above, they would not be shown in a New York gallery. They would instead be shown the door. The predominant view is that photographs should rise above the primitive visual gag. They should resist easy understanding. The one liner —Erwitt's forte— is anathema. Street photographers in particular are encouraged to steer clear of them if they want to be taken seriously.
Yet Erwitt has leveraged such visual puns into a stellar career. How?
Simple. One liners are valid. One liners can be beautiful. One liners are worth photographing,
Instead of viewing one liners as primitive, perhaps a better way to think of them is zen-like. They cut through the clutter. While many photographers get hung up in obtuse nuance, Erwitt sees through it, "delivering his visual gags with...economy and sweet-tempered lack of pretension," in the words of critic Ken Johnson.
Visual puns work like jokes. A good one can really soar. The potential problem with jokes, especially puns, is that nothing falls flatter than a bad one. In the case of photography, unfortunately most one liners fail. We've all seen the same photos of mysteriously four-armed kids or pedestrians mirroring background posters. There's a very fine line between these types of photos and ones very similar which actually work.
To the mainstream photo community, that line is invisible. A visual pun is a visual pun, period. Erwitt may be praised in some circles as "the Henny Youngman of photographic one liners," yet the genre as a whole is still the Rodney Dangerfield of the photo world.
Nevertheless gradations exist. It is possible to make very good one liners. It's not easy. In fact it's damn hard. But just because most fall short let's not dismiss the genre. One liners are a valid form. Erwitt's work proves it.
Of course I am biased. Erwitt's style is similar to my own. I may never match up to his oeuvre but I've been influenced by it. I depend on clever juxtaposition. I match this with that. I use signs for comedic effect. I've done posters and four-armed kids. I'm a good candidate for one liners anonymous.
When I replaced one of my In-Public galleries a few weeks ago, I stocked it with one liners. If I ever publish a book of street photos, I already have the title picked out: One Liners. I'm sure it'll be a turn off to some. You might think the photos are obvious or silly, and that's fine.
But I can't help it. Those are the shots I look for on my contacts. When I see one pop up unexpectedly under the loupe it gives me a charge like nothing else. There's a moment of confusion at first, then I pass through the little door of understanding. An aha! moment occurs that is divine and addictive, and somehow validating.