Elliott Erwitt: Stories of France

In Paris, the Musée Maillol is devoting an impressive retrospective to American photographer Elliott Erwitt. This is an opportunity to dive back into Found, Not Lost, a book published in 2021 with 171 previously unseen photographs, including 17 taken in France. An astounding display of his intimate ties to the country in which he was born.
Paris, 1952. © Elliott Erwitt/Magnum Photos

With his mischievous style, 94-year-old Elliott Erwitt is probably the last living photography legend. A member of Magnum Photos since 1953, he has tried his hand at everything, including social reporting, celebrity portraits, street photography, fashion, and advertising, with the same inimitable, good-humored, compassionate style that allows viewers to immediately feel close to the strangers in his images.

Erwitt has always loved people, magnifying them with a rare consistency, as well as dogs, of which he has photographed hundreds, often in quite extraordinary situations. His photographic work is an honest observation of the world, a whole heap of innocent, little things captured spontaneously, a sort of opera for humanity. Needless to say, the publication of a new work by Erwitt featuring never-before-seen images is usually quite the event. “This lifelong study of humanity is unparalleled, and a reminder to all of us to just keep walking and to keep listening,” writes Jody Quon, photography director of New York Magazine, about the book.

Great photographers are often modest. Erwitt’s particular brand of humility developed throughout his unpredictable childhood. He was born Elio Romano Ervitz at the American Hospital of Paris in 1928, to Russian parents who had fled Bolshevism to France in search of relative peace. With the rise of fascism in Europe, the Ervitz family, whose father Boris was Jewish, leftist, Buddhist, and a Freemason, decided to move to the United States. The little Elio and his mother Eugenie left Le Havre for New York on September 2, 1939, just before war was declared on Germany by England and France. The British liner Athenia was torpedoed by a German submarine in the following hours, and Erwitt remembers that his ship, the Ile-de-France, was “totally blacked out because we thought we might get sunk.”

Paris, 1951. © Elliott Erwitt/Magnum Photos
Paris, 1951. © Elliott Erwitt/Magnum Photos

In 1949, Erwitt, who had started working as a photographer, returned to France for a documentary on the fifth anniversary of the Allied landings in Normandy. The film has unfortunately been lost, but this visit enabled him to spend time with members of his family he had not seen since his childhood, as well as take a number of photos. The images from this journey include a tender picture of a young woman in front of a Parisian building, which has finally been published in Found, Not Lost. During this time, Erwitt also supposedly met Robert Frank – another legendary photographer, who passed away in 2019 – on the boat between New York and France.

France, a Love Story

Drafted into the U.S. Army, Erwitt returned to France in 1951 and was stationed in Verdun, a town that had endured some of the worst horrors of the Great War. This is where he met his first wife, Lucienne van Kan, a beautiful Dutch woman working for the U.S. Army Post Exchange. She can be seen in certain images sleeping peacefully on a bed, as well as in one of Erwitt’s most famous photographs alongside their naked firstborn and their cat. The photographer also put the trip to good use by observing the French, capturing their stark authenticity as seen in the image of a family posing in the Loire Valley, and Parisian street children whose impish smiles hark back to the movies of Albert Lamorisse.

Loire Valley, 1952. © Elliott Erwitt/Magnum Photos
Verdun, 1951. © Elliott Erwitt/Magnum Photos
Loire Valley, 1952. © Elliott Erwitt/Magnum Photos
Lucienne van Kan, Paris, 1952. © Elliott Erwitt/Magnum Photos
Paris, 1949. © Elliott Erwitt/Magnum Photos
Church of Our Lady of the Angels, Collioure, 2006. © Elliott Erwitt/Magnum Photos

Erwitt was a young romantic at the time. He would leave his barracks to shoot portraits of Simone de Beauvoir and was hired in 1952 by Alfred A. Knopf, a New York publisher specialized in European authors translated for the American public. He also met Robert Capa, the godfather of photojournalism and the cofounder of the Magnum Photos agency. “I went to his office in Paris,” he said in an interview in 1977. “He seemed like a nice guy and promised to hire me as soon as I left the Army.”

Erwitt eventually left the military in 1953. While working for Magnum, he met Henri Cartier-Bresson, “the most flamboyant pickpocket of the 20th century,” a nickname given to the renowned French photographer by journalist Brigitte Ollier. Erwitt saw Cartier-Bresson as the ultimate master, an admiration bordering on the religious when you compare their signatures. The two men had “the same vision of the world, presented with honesty and candor, without ever mixing up genres,” said Erwitt in an interview with France-Amérique in 2010. “Henri was happy to spend time giving advice to the young photographer I was at the time. However, if he didn’t like you, you may as well have never existed!”

At an exhibition in New York in 1987, Erwitt proudly sported a clerical collar amidst the sea of ties and bowties. His mentor was delighted. However, Erwitt’s greatest tribute to Cartier-Bresson was a playful image of a man in the Provence countryside riding his bike down a road lined with plane trees, his son and a number of baguettes stowed firmly on the pannier rack. This is now one of his best-known photographs, and was used in 1961 by a tourist board to illustrate and promote French art de vivre. Today, it can be viewed in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Found, Not Lost
by Elliott Erwitt, GOST Books, 2021.

Elliott Erwitt: A Retrospective, at the Musée Maillol in Paris through August 15, 2023.

Portfolio published in the April 2021 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.