Twelve Questions

Sarah Daniell poses 12 questions to well-known faces

Twelve Questions with Elliot Erwitt

His black-and-white shots of the famous, the ironic and the everyday ordinary are instantly recognisable. Magnum photographer Elliot Erwitt has captured on film legends such as JFK, Fidel Castro, and Marilyn Monroe. He also has a thing for dogs - the subject of four of his 23 books. Last year Erwitt, 84, travelled around Europe for several exhibitions.

Elliot Erwin joined the Magnum agency in 1953. Photo / Getty Images
Elliot Erwin joined the Magnum agency in 1953. Photo / Getty Images

1. Of all the high-profile people you've photographed, who least resembles the popular perception of them?

As a category I would say candidates for elected office who try to be something that will please their audience in spite of whom they really are. Of the people I photographed I would put President Richard Nixon in that category.

2. You were accredited to the White House during the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis. What did America feel like then and what does it feel like there now?

I am not a historian so I can only say that the White House in those days seemed to be in very good hands and that the country had great confidence in their new young leader. Many years and lesser Presidents have come and gone since that time with modest exception. Currently the country is very much divided and the conservatives exerting far greater influence than their number. But we have a new young President who is trying hard to put the country on an equitable course and some of us are hopeful.

3. What has America learned from history and what has it yet to learn?

Probably nothing.

4. Can you recall the atmosphere that day in 1960, in Nevada, when you photographed the stars of The Misfits?

Nothing special. It's easy to shoot on movie sets. But I remember it was hard to get them all together because Marilyn was always late. It was complicated, because of how she was at that point. When I photographed her on the set, it was a bad time of her life. She was upset.

5. If photography is about how you see something rather than what you see, how did you see Marilyn Monroe?

Famous or not famous, I don't see people as different. They're just subjects. But she was very nice to me. She was a very attractive person, even more in photos than in person. It was very difficult to take a bad picture of her. She was very intelligent, sensitive and pleasant. She had the star quality but was also a very nice person.

6. What's the best hunch you've ever had and what was the resulting photograph?

Pretending to be part of a Soviet official group at the display of the first intercontinental missiles in Moscow, 1957. It resulted in a photographic world scoop with pictures published world wide.

7. Did you have a cigar with Che Guevara?

He gave me a whole box of them. Ceremonial ones. They were beautiful. Every now and then I'll have a cigar. Once in a while, with a single malt whiskey.

8. What was the most compelling aspect of Fidel Castro's personality?

I photographed Castro many years ago during his most popular time. On a tour of Cuba he seemed easily and well connected to the ordinary people, rather like a rock star than a dictator. I liked him. He seemed interesting. A cowboy. I don't think Che was as interesting ... well maybe that's not fair. As interesting, but more reserved. More private. Not as pleasant. Fidel was very charming.

9. Can you tell me a story about JFK - a simple observation; a story that hasn't been told?

JFK was very much interested in seeing the extensive picture story I photographed following his war experiences in the South Pacific during World II - specifically in the Solomon Islands. And so I spent a bit of time in the White House showing him the work and the people he was involved with during that period. This included the assembled crew and captain of the destroyer Amagiri (in Japan) that hit and sank Kennedy's PT 109 boat.

10. Whom, as a subject, has made it most difficult for you to overcome your shyness?

Overcoming shyness is easy with a camera in between me and the subject. So I will say that it is not the subject but the camera that does it. Being shy is a plus. You don't make a fuss. I'm not shy any more.

11. What can you see of Central Park [New York] out your apartment window right now?

It's dark, so there's not many people around. It's a good view of the park. I look over Sheep Meadow. It's a beautiful apartment. I'm on the 8th floor and I have a studio on the ground floor. It's good. It saves on taxi fares.

12. When did you last see a single act of great humanity in New York?

Think I will go out in Central Park today for a walk and try to see some great humanity for your article. But I am not making any promises.

13. Who are your neighbours? Whose door do you knock on for a cup of sugar or a bowl of olives if you run out?

There are a number of high profile show biz celebrities living in my building. Best that I do not name them. In New York one does not necessarily fraternise with one's neighbour. If a cup of sugar or bowl of olives is required one can call the local grocer and have it delivered.

14. Your Christmas tree - real or fake?

I have a wooden sculpture in the shape of a tree. I've had it for 20 years. I don't like a tree that dies in your living room and that you have to dispose of. I've had real Christmas trees in the past, but I would plant one afterwards, at my holiday home. It's by the sea, at the end of Long Island in East Hampton. About a hundred miles out. It's close to the ocean.

15. If you were a dog, what would you be?

A Dachshund. They're really smart and small enough to be put in a bag on a train. They're portable and that's important here. It's a problem, if you live in the city. I had a dog until about four months ago. I'd had him for 17 years but now he's gone to heaven. His name was Sammy. I might get another, but not now. I'm still in mourning.

16. What's the most beautifully ordinary thing you've photographed most recently?

Can't say that it is ordinary but most recently I spent a couple of weeks traveling through the Scottish western islands to enhance and add pictures to a book about Scotland which will be published later next year. I just returned from Miami doing a fashion shoot for an Italian firm.

17. What can a photograph express that words can never tell?

It depends on the quality of the photograph. If it is a good one it connects with the viewer much quicker than words can.

18. What have you learnt about yourself in observing others and through your craft?

I guess I've learnt to be careful and not to be intrusive. Not to make a fuss. And I try, as much as possible, to be a fly on the wall. I'm inconspicuous. I try to be. I don't want to push myself forward.

19. Technology makes it possible for everyone in the world to be a photographer. What is your view on that, progress or a dilution of the art?

It doesn't mean people take good pictures. It's good that you can take pictures of your children or dog or whatever. But having a pad and pen doesn't make you a great novelist. I divide my work into two categories - the commercial work I do for agencies and magazines and my hobby. With my hobby photography I do whatever I feel like. There is no client. That ability to do what you want constitutes most of my hobby work.

20. In devoting yourself totally to photography, what have you sacrificed?

It's the opposite. I was able to do many things that otherwise would've been not possible. Life has been interesting. It's all positive.

- NZ Herald

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