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Elliott Erwitt Paris Hardcover – September 15, 2010
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There are some very good pictures here, and such is the case of the one on the cover. But I found both Erwitt's Paris and Rome are very irregular. I can't see a guiding line along the selections. It seems to me that there has been an attempt to show as many aspects of Erwitt's artistry that the result is a confusing mix of images that fails to construct a narrative.
And not only that, because many of the images in these books are simply bad and lame photographs.
Then, why the three stars instead of minus seven stars?
Because it is a nice book, the technical aspects of the edition are well sorted out, and some of the photographs are very much worth discovering. All in all, besides what I disliked about Paris and Rome, I enjoyed going through them and writing this review. If it only had been a cheaper review...
At the time of this book's publication, Elliott Erwitt is eighty-two-years old, and maybe only recently has he been accorded serious respect among non-photographers. Part of this realignment of status and elevation of stature has come through his finally having found a deep-quality publisher to handle his catalog. Ansel Adams had Little, Brown; now Elliott Erwitt has teNeues. The German publisher of art books and printed visual culture, teNeues has taken a very serious approach to Elliott Erwitt. This is now the seventh volume of his work by them in recent years, all of a style - using the same large, vertical format, on heavy paper, with quality sewn binding, and gorgeous duotone separations (printing black-and-white monochrome photos with black-and-gray inks, for a deeper, warmer dynamic range), delivered with the same elegant-modern, demi-bold, san-serif, all-caps, white/black/gray titling. On a shelf, the volumes would all line up perfectly.
But these won't fit on any but the most generous book shelves; they are "coffee table" volumes.
Everything about this volume and its companions in the series says "coffee table." For those of us who like photographs published "gallery style" - with each image presented singularly, conservatively, one-by-one, with ample white margins, unencumbered by design-y-ness, not split across gutters nor bleeding across edges, providing the viewer with a simple, sublime presentation of photographs for their very own sake - this is yet another frustrating compromise for us: we come for the photographs, what we get is graphic design. (I've never seen a photographer present his or her photos split across a curved gutter, nor have I ever heard or read of a photo fan preferring that method of presentation. So, why do publishers of photography books continually do that?)
Granted, it is very "rich" design, lending an expensive-looking luster to a great artist too often delivered in a card by mail. This is an exceptionally high-quality product put out by a publisher with not even a hint of immaturity running through its ink, and we should all be grateful for such a substantial effort. The selection edit of images is intelligent and considered, alternating iconic masterpieces with insightful snapshots. And anybody who loves "rich" design and sumptuous coffee table books, while also loving Elliott Erwitt (or who is now ready to fall in love with Elliott Erwitt), and, of course, Paris (Paris, Paris, Paris! -- in all of its small, buttery bits), this book is absolutely five stars.
But for students of photography (who can never decide who was best in this very particular vein - Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau, or Elliott Erwitt), with a persnickety desire for simple, quiet, truly conservative, presentation ... this book and its series is four stars with an asterisk. The asterisk is our heart broken, once again. It is so close to perfection, but while Erwitt has been given the sumptuous treatment of a first-rate publisher, teNeues has not done for Erwitt's photography what Little, Brown did for Ansel Adams: reduce the role of the graphic designer and allow the photographer to show his greatness.
In Adam Gopnik's introduction, a piece of writing that is almost as inviting as the following imagery, he states the concept of the book very well: 'If there is a magic to photography, unique among its sister arts, it is this business of taking the immediate, right here, no-place-but-this and turning it instantly into the always there, symbolic, any-place-you-love. Essay writing makes an "I" into a "You", or tries to, but the great photographers modestly make a "there/then" into a "Now'-and for all time!" and it does it absolutely at once, with a minimum of symbol or stagecraft or overt fusing. What happens just happens - as dogs happen on a street, as waiters hover over tables, as life takes place in cities. It was there; now it's here. It's small street magic, potent, and somehow Parisian, art.'
What follows is exactly what a trip to Paris infuses into our systems. Parisians and their dogs, the extraordinary beauty of their city of light, their reaction to the art that swirls about them, their icons, their playfulness, their love in public, their naughty burlesque houses, their addiction to their cafés, their Parisian fashion (and bohemian fashion!), their baguettes and wine - it is all here, unposed, of the moment, sensitively observed, and funny/tender/inscrutable/and wonderfully self centered. These photographs remain in the mind for hours, days, and in cases, forever. Elliott Erwitt 'gets' Paris - and he has given it back to us - sensationally. Grady Harp, October 10