Art watchers in museums have always obsessed US photographer Elliott Erwitt, who calls himself a "dedicated people watcher who loves to see art and art watchers watching." When he's not working, Erwitt travels to museums worldwide to observe the social ritual of art watching. Finding interesting subjects to photograph in museums is "like shooting fish in a barrel," Erwitt once said.
Museum Watching, his monograph on the theme spanning over 45 years, was published in 1999. An exhibition of the same name (highlights from the book) has since traveled around the world. The exhibition in Taipei consists of 56 gelatin silver prints of his works. Erwitt's amazing ability to make visual puns, irony and humorous criticism by keenly observing his subjects and catching them at the most revealing moment makes this show highly amusing yet no less inspiring.
Erwitt is characteristically reluctant to explain his photographs and rightfully so, because few other photographers make images that are as concrete and to-the-point as his. For instance, Two Majas by Goya are hung next to each other in the Prado gallery, one clothed and the other nude, a female visitor stands thoughtfully in front of the clothed one while the nude is half-blocked by a crowd of male viewers. In Musee du Louvre, a group of young women surround the portrait of Mona Lisa. One of them is walking away with a mysterious smile that mirrors what she had just admired.
Apart from museums, Erwitt has included historical sites, aquariums and Buddhist temples in his pungent observations. In all these candid images, he sardonically hints at the declining relevancy of those halls of high art and historical and religious legacy to an increasing nonchalant group of museum-goers. By hinting at the social meanings of museum-going, he brings forth an ambiguous yet unchanging human nature, an underlying theme of all his works.
In the introduction to his book, Erwitt shares his knack for taking photos in museums, where it's usually forbidden. Using a quiet camera, he wrote, he caught people when they were not looking and coughed when he clicked the shutter. As Erwitt was equally humorous in his photos and in sharing his experience of shooting them, it's a pity the book is not available here.
Erwitt was born in Paris to Russian parents in 1928 and grew up in Italy before escaping from the Nazis to Los Angeles as a teenager. Soon settling in New York, his photographs -- taking photos was for the young man a beloved hobby that made some extra money -- he caught the attention of Edward Steichen at the Museum of Modern Art, Roy Stryker at the Standard Oil photo library and Robert Capa at Magnum photographic agency. He was soon admitted to the elite agency.
Never confining himself to one particular subject, Erwitt has covered a spectrum of genres from photojournalism, film stills to advertising since the 1940s. The only principle he follows is to present unmanipulated black and white photos. The reason is esthetic and reflects his firm belief that photography is about observation. His most popular works are of dogs and their comic resemblance to their human owners, which formed books like Son of Bitch, The Dogbox and Dogs Dogs. His latest publication is Elliott Erwitt Snaps, a 550-page retrospective released last month.