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‘Found, Not Lost’: Never before seen pictures by Elliott Erwitt handpicked from his personal archive

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The Independent
The Independent
 2021-02-20

By the time Elliott Erwitt was 70 years into his distinguished photography career, his work was being prepared for show in a retrospective exhibition celebrating his whimsical and often humorous style and featuring pictures pulled from one of many library collections dedicated to him.

Erwitt himself was involved with the exhibition, Home Around the World, at the Ramson Centre in Texas, and the experience inspired him to set about examining his own archive of his work.

Over the course of nearly two years, the veteran Magnum photographer sifted through around 600,000 images, contact sheets and negatives, from those developed in his bathroom sink at home when he was starting out at 17 to those taken as recently as 2010.

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Every flat surface in his New York studio was strewn with jumbles of photos for months. He was helped by his editor and long-time book designer, Stuart Smith, and his trusted studio manager, Mio Nakamura.

The result is a new photobook: Found, Not Lost , published by Gost Books and filled with pictures previously unseen by the public.

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The earliest image in the book was taken in 1947 and the most recent in 2010. Including snaps from post-war Europe to the former USSR, coast to coast USA to Japan, Brazil and Birmingham, the far-flung character of Erwitt’s career is reflected here.

He is, after all, a man well disposed to travelling. Born in Paris, he then spent his early childhood in Milan before moving to New York in 1939. By his early twenties, he was back in Europe, serving in a unit of the Army Signal Corps in Germany and France.

Robert Capa brought Erwitt on board Magnum Photos in 1953, granting him professional backing to pursue his photojournalistic travels. His commercial work too has taken him around the globe, most recently to Cuba and Scotland.

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In selecting the 150 archive shots for the book, Erwitt took the opportunity to revisit photographs he took as a younger man with a more experienced eye.

The wit his pictures are known for has survived this second viewing and shines through across the pages. In one image, what appears to show a bonny baby competition in Blackpool (perhaps such a thing was funny by itself even in 1975?) is relegated to the background as a young Malcolm McDowell lookalike in the crowd draws the viewer’s eye as he stares with a slight scowl at something suggestively more interesting out of frame.

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So many of the inclusions, however, are quiet and pensive, more subtle than the sharp visual punchlines he has been known for over the decades.

And at odds with the established shadowy figure of Erwitt’s brand of documentary photography – one who lurks in public spaces to capture unwitting strangers – some of the pictures are intensely personal, featuring for example his first wife, Lucienne Van Kanor his first-born daughter, Ellen.

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“In my nineties, my work looks different than I’ve ever seen it before,” Erwitt said of the selection process for the book, “there’s a time for pictures that say hello, and there’s a time to listen.”

Found, Not Lost by Elliott Erwitt is published by Gost Books and available for £60

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