A colleague of Magnum photographer Elliott Erwitt once described the Russian-American as being “half-photographer, half-dog,” owing to his almost supernatural affinity with the canine species. “It’s quite extraordinary,” the associate expanded, “He barks at them. They understand.” Erwitt, whose career has centered chiefly on advertising and documentary photography, tends to shoot in black and white, creating works tinged with irony and absurdity, yet presented in an everday context. It is this candid quirkiness, coupled with Erwitt’s obvious love and understanding of dogs, that makes his dog portraiture – a genre to which he has returned throughout his working life – so skillful, funny and endearing. Happily for fans of both Erwitt and his favoured subject, the best of such works have been collated in a newly rereleased publication, entitled Elliot Erwitt's Dogs.
Dogs have long been portrayed in art, from classical mosaics and wall paintings through the Victorian zeal for pet portraiture, right up to the present day (think Lucian Freud and his beloved whippets). But traditional depictions of dogs are often limited to the favoured breeds of the period, shown in elegant, "kennel club" poses, and chiefly acting as an accessory to a human protagonist.
"The genius of Erwitt as a dog portraitist is his fondness for imperfection; his knack of capturing all that is humourous and idiosyncratic in canine appearance and nature"
The genius of Erwitt as a dog portraitist, therefore, is his fondness for imperfection; his knack of capturing all that is humourous and idiosyncratic in canine appearance and nature. He revels in dogs of all shapes and sizes, mutts and pedigrees alike, complete with lolling tongues, flailing legs and bared bellies as they indulge in a lengthy roll or back scratch. In his work humans are never more than equal to their companions, while often conventional roles are reversed, the human serving to complement the dog. A brilliant example of this is a bulldog sitting po-faced on his owner’s lap, positioned with his head obscuring that of the man, so that the human body appears to be an extension of the dog's own.
The image is also an apt demonstration of Erwitt's other great gift, succinctly summarised by Peter Mayle as "the sixth sense that tells him when to be ready, when a perfect moment is just about to happen." And therein lies the secret to the book's success: its plethora of these perfectly timed dog moments, so often observed in everyday life but, before Erwitt, very rarely documented.
Elliot Erwitt's Dogs is published by teNeues and is available now.
Text by Daisy Woodward