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Elliott Erwitt Paris Hardcover – September 15, 2010
Collectible Photography Books
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Top Customer Reviews
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.
This is a remarkable collection of Paris photographs. The 176 14 1/2 by 11 inch pages allow the pictures to speak for themselves with no distractions. There is a one page (although it covers 5 pages due to translations) introduction by Adam Gopnik (New Yorker and Paris to the Moon), 3 pages of thumbnails of each picture with location and date, a very brief one page biography, and one page of acknowledgements. All the other pages in this book are photographs.
This is an unusual printing of Erwitt's photographs. I imagine that Erwitt shot thinking of smaller format publication; he was the head of and worked for Magnum, one of the great providers of magazine photographs. Magazine publication would seldom print larger than 8.5 x 11 inches. Some of the photographs are printed on two pages, making the enlargement 22 x 14 inches. On these large prints, grain is very visible and becomes another artistic element. The book does not state if these are brand new prints from the original negative. I would guess that they must be new prints. The pictures that work the absolute best, respect the smaller size enlargement.
I've compared the 1981 Aperture Paris Magnum Photographs 1935-1981 (Paris Magnum Photographs 1935-1981). There are several Erwitt pictures printed in both books. Aperture is well known for their incredibly beautiful printing. teNeues has done a remarkable job compared to Aperture. Shadows, midtones, and highlights in this book are slightly more blocked. The images are higher contrast, but the blacks are richer and more detailed. The Aperture volume is slightly warmer, sepia toned; teNeues has gone to a very neutral colder black and purer white. All that said, I cannot decide which prints I like better. The teNeues paper and finish is much nicer than Aperture.
Elliott Erwitt was an idol of mine growing up taking pictures in the 70's and 80's. I tried to copy his style as a high school exchange student in Paris (if you can imagine combining Diane Arbus, Elliott Erwitt, Eliot Porter, Ernst Haas, and Eugene Atget). His pictures have a deeper darker unspoken side to them than the street photography of Alfred Eisenstaedt (VJ Day, the Kiss). Erwitt belongs in the family of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Andre Kertesz. What makes this book all the more remarkable, spending time gazing at these seemingly simple "snapshots" of Paris. At first his photographs look like anyone with a camera could have taken that picture. Some look like he completely forgot about exposure, film grain, and focus. But these large format pictures allowed me time to study the background, the things in the photograph going on around the main image. How Erwitt draws my eye to exactly the thing he wants me to see. There is a beautiful picture of Sophia Loren; only 3/4 of her gorgeous white face stands out at the bottom of the photograph. The remainder, or majority of the photograph, is clutter and deeper gray blur of people, microphones and various film set effluvia. It is a stunning photograph of Loren, even if he has cropped out the most photographed and recognizable part of her.
Oddly, to me, the cover photograph is one of the weakest photographs in this book. It is one of his more famous photographs, the Eiffel Tower, a man leaping with an umbrella and a couple embracing under a destroyed umbrella (1989). For me, it feels derivative of the staged street photography post World War II. I find the back cover picture of a man and woman huddled close together, dwarfed by the Jardin des Tuilleries (1970), much more meaningful and powerful.
The photography of Elliott Erwitt is no longer possible in digital. His black and white images must have an organic, non-mechanized, grain. The precision and sharpness of digital photography would not convey the emotions and feeling of place nearly as well. The book is organized along thematic lines and not chronologically. It is surprising to find a photograph from the 1950's next to one from the 1990's. Erwitt's style has not changed over all these years. The more recent photographs do have smaller grain and are sharper.
Erwitt isn't influenced by the politics of the time; his commentary is about people, dogs, and the environment. There is a very strange cluster of four images that still confuse me - why they were placed facing each other escapes me. The first 1965 burlesque dancers each holding up a book, the second 1958 Dior couture opening man standing in a small room with seated women looking up at him, the third 1984 two women and a man sitting in bed eating breakfast torso naked, and the fourth 1951 nun standing to the side of a large group of boys at boarding school. Each picture is exactly the same size and they are spread out evenly spaced across two facing pages. As with individual photographs, I search for some higher meaning to these four pictures.
All is not perfection with this book. I would like to know if Erwitt intended some of these pictures to be so greatly enlarged. Is the final effect in the book, what he intended when he took these pictures? Many pictures span two pages. This is a bit problematic in that there is a huge vertical line down the middle of the photograph. For some images, this is not a major problem. However, there are a good number that would be better without the vertical gap.
The book is fairly family friendly. There are several pictures of burlesque dancers with exposed breasts, and the bedroom scene mentioned above. Otherwise, everyone has their clothes on. I mention this for parents trying to decide if this book would be appropriate for the coffee table.
This is one of the most beautiful photography volumes I own. It is in fine company with the Museum of Modern Art New York - The Work of Atget; an Aperture Monograph - Diane Arbus; and Aperture The Last Days of Summer - Jock Sturges. I feel like Elliot Erwitt, an old friend, is visiting.
This review is from a complimentary copy of Elliot Erwitt's Paris provided by the publisher.