Misha Erwitt by
New York City 1989 © Misha Erwitt
Miss America Atlantic City New Jersey 1989 © Misha Erwitt
Thanksgiving New York City 1965 © Misha Erwitt
Shea Stadium New York City 1991© Misha Erwitt
New York City 1979 © Misha Erwitt
Athens, Greece 1990 © Misha Erwitt
Montauk, New York 1980 © Misha Erwitt
Harlem, New York City 1990 © Misha Erwitt
CBGBs New York City 1985 © Misha Erwitt
New York City 1981© Misha Erwitt
Redondo Beach California 2004 © Misha Erwitt
Dhaka, Bangladesh 1992 © Misha Erwitt
New York City 1980 © Misha Erwitt
New York City 1988 © Misha Erwitt
In January, the Leica Gallery in New York City opened an exhibition featuring work by two photographers who capture the pathos and mild absurdities of everyday life. One of the photographers, Craig Semetko, was a former comedy writer whose new book, titled Unposed (teNeues), featured a forward by the grand master of humorous street photography, Elliott Erwitt. The other featured photographer was Erwitt’s son, Misha Erwitt, who for more than two decades has been creating his own unique brand of street photography—images of body builders, subway riders, Marilyn Monroe look-alikes, and other characters who populate the strange pageant of urban life.
The exhibition was a welcome spotlight for Erwitt, a freelance editorial photographer who has been based in Los Angeles for the past 11 years. But even in the spotlight, the shadow of his father could be seen and felt all around.
“I did an interview for the Leica blog when the show opened,” recalls Erwitt, “and the guy who wrote it up started the story by saying, ‘Misha Erwitt: son of a legendary Leica photographer….”
To be fair, the blog writer also identified Misha Erwitt as “a former Magnum photographer and newspaper photojournalist” with a “brilliant” eye, but for photographers and artists who follow in the footsteps of famous parents, there will always be doubters. Among the many positive responses to Erwitt’s work posted on the Leica blog, there was the inevitable accusation: “Since when does mediocre street photography equal brilliance?” wrote someone named James. “I guess it’s who you know.”
“All in all, it wasn’t as bad as it could have been,” says Erwitt, laughing. The Internet has made it all too easy for ill-tempered and jealous people to write things they would never utter in person, and photography blogs are particularly notorious for such self-serving commentary.
“It is what it is,” says Misha Erwitt.
Now 56 years old, he is beginning his 11th year in Los Angeles, a place that still seems like an alien landscape to a New York-bred street photographer. “Try to take a street picture in L.A.,” he says. “There are certain places you can go to accomplish that—a mall in Santa Monica or maybe downtown—but once you’ve been there do you want to keep coming back?”
He will be coming back to New York in May, when his father receives recognition for Lifetime Achievement at the International Center of Photography’s 2011 Infinity Awards program. Elliott Erwitt’s wit and perception made him one of the giants of 20th-century photography, and at 82 he is still working. “He just came from doing an advertising job in England,” says Misha. “The man is unstoppable.”
There are obvious comparisons to be made between the work of the father and son. Misha Erwitt’s scenes of life on the streets of New York City delight in incongruity and juxtaposition, seeing what is in plain sight and framing it in ways that reveal just how extraordinary the ordinary world really is. If Elliott Erwitt was part of photographic history, Misha Erwitt grew up watching that history happen first hand, and that perspective helped form him.
“There’s a picture of me as a kid running after David Seymour with a stick in my hand,” he recalls. David “Chim” Seymour, was, with Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and George Rodger, one of the legendary founders of Magnum Photos, the agency his father would later join. Misha also has a 1957 Leica M3 that once belonged to Kryn Taconis, another famed name from Magnum’s past.
“Of course I was aware of photography when I was growing up, because that’s all Elliott ever did,” says Misha. “There were darkrooms in our apartments. My mom and dad divorced with I was eight years old, and of course when I was visiting him there was photography all around me.” Elliott Erwitt later advised Misha to go into film rather than photography, and Misha Erwitt did work in the film industry in New York for a number of years. But photography was always there. How could it not be?
His first big professional break in photography came in the mid-1980s, and he admits it came about through the intervention of family connections. But it was his mother, Lucienne Matthews, who was responsible, in a roundabout way. She was living in Marin County, California at the time, and noticed the work of a work of a young photographer named Eli Reed, whose pictures of political violence in Central America had appeared in the San Francisco Examiner. “She invited him to dinner and told him to call me in New York,” recalls Erwitt. “We met and hit it off right away; I suggested that the Magnum agency might be a good spot for him.”
Reed later returned the favor. His old boss at the Examiner, Eric Meskauskas, had moved to the New York Daily News, and Reed told Erwitt to go see him. Erwitt ended up working at the newspaper for five years. “I had free reign to do what I do, which is to wander the streets and take pictures. It was heaven,” says Erwitt.
What happened next wasn’t heaven. He left the newspaper and applied for membership in Magnum. “My father said, ‘It’s going to be hard to get into Magnum soon; if you want in, you’d better do it now.’” Misha spent three years as a Magnum nominee—a try-out period—but was then denied full membership by the cooperative. “Magnum is like a secret society, so I don’t know much about what went on,” says Erwitt. “I’ve heard that there was infighting between my father and some younger members, and that I paid the price. That’s one scenario. The other is that my work just sucked.”
He freelanced for a time, then returned to the newspaper for another six years. Then he moved to Los Angeles, where the woman he was living with had landed a job, and started freelancing again. He has reluctantly started a Facebook page called “The Cosmo Chronicles” (Cosmo is his dog), and recently he’s been working on a series of images focusing on the pervasive role of the United States flag in contemporary culture. “I was born on Flag Day,” he says. “My father or my mother, I forget who, used to always say, ‘Hey, it’s your birthday, and they all put out flags for you.”
Was it a plus or minus being the son of Elliott Erwitt? “I hear it’s a plus,” he says. “I don’t really go around announcing to people who I’m related to. I just show my pictures, and if there’s a tug on the line, I’m happy.”