- By Jeanne Claire van Ryzin American-Statesman Staff
Equal to the Ransom Center’s international reputation as a locus of literary manuscripts is its renown as a repository of magnificent photography collections.
In the early 1960s, before many museums and cultural institutions made any concerted effort to collect photography, the Ransom Center bought an expansive historical archive assembled by German scholar Helmut Gernsheim that began with the medium’s earliest experimentations, including the heliograph made in 1836 or 1837 by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, considered the world’s first photograph.
Now, the Ransom Center has well over 5 million photographs, including the Magnum Photos collection — a vast archive of 200,000 images from the epic photo agency valued at $200 million. The Magnum collection was donated in 2015 as a gift from Michael and Susan Dell, Glenn and Amanda Fuhrman and John and Amy Phelan.
Last year, the center also received the archive of photographer Elliott Erwitt, donated by New York philanthropists Caryl and Israel Englander.
With about 47,500 vintage and modern black-and-white prints, as well as the corresponding negatives and contact sheets, Erwitt’s archive spans a breathtaking seven decades of witty and perceptive picture-making by the celebrated photographer. Erwitt, born in 1928 and still actively photographing, shares with many of the great street photographers of the 20th century the ability to spot and capture a singular and potent moment.
The Ransom Center’s recently opened exhibit “Elliott Erwitt: At Home Around the World” features more than 200 of Erwitt’s finest works and comes with a major catalogue published in association with the noted Aperture Foundation.
The exhibit cleverly unrolls Erwitt’s life and career, with the bulk of the exhibit focusing on the photographer’s work from the 1950s and 1960s. Erwitt joined the Magnum agency in 1953 and shot assignments for the great illustrated magazines of the time: Life, Look and Holiday, among others.
It is a life and career defined by peripateticism. Born in France and raised in Italy by Russian emigre parents, his family came to the United States when he was 11. He then shuttled between his separated parents, from New York to Los Angeles. And though he established himself in New York at age 19, that itinerant lifestyle remained as he traveled the world taking pictures on professional assignments.
Perhaps that rather constant state of being an outsider everywhere he went gave him a unique observational perspective. Always at a remove from the subject, he nevertheless often found whimsy in what he saw.
Through his lens, the legs of a Great Dane, a woman in boots and a Chihuahua become emblematic of a witty moment in the city. In fact, that 1974 image is one of Erwitt’s best-known, representative not just of the urban scenes that characterize much of his best work but also one of his favorite subjects: dogs. Erwitt’s books of dog photos include “Dog Dogs” (1998) and “Woof” (2005).
Women and children, crowds on the beach or at fairs and families at dinner were also subjects on which Erwitt frequently trained his lens, often capturing a sense of wry humor but always with a certain tenderness and never at the subject’s expense.
Erwitt’s commercial work included shooting author portraits for publishing house Alfred A. Knopf and shooting on-set photographs of some high-profile films, including “On the Waterfront” and “The Seven Year Itch.”
Journalistic assignments sent him to Cuba, the Soviet Union and the American South in the turbulent 1950s as the civil rights movement gained traction. Erwitt’s photo of an exchange between Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon in Moscow in 1959 — an event that became known as the “Kitchen Debates” — remains an iconic Cold War image.
“For me, it’s always total serendipity,” said Erwitt when once asked about his photojournalistic career.
That could be said of his entire photographic oeuvre. With an actively cultivated skill and enormous sensitivity, Erwitt captures life’s spontaneity.