Few days ago it was annouced a new and interesting project: the Havana Club 7 fellowship: an annualy award given to an exeptional photographer who will travel to the beautiful Cuba to create a story, a reportage and to capture the soul of Cuba, as the master Eliott Erwitt started doing 51 years ago.
Ten editions of a selection of seven images will be sold in support of the Fellowship to fund the next photographer being awarded, alongside a yearly contribution of €25,000 EUR from Havana Club – thereby offering each successive photographer the opportunity to benefit the next in line in order to continue the legacy of Elliott Erwitt and celebrate the culture, history and tradition of Cuba.
ELIOTT ERWITT INTERVIEWED BY NIGEL FARNDALE
Throughout his distinguished (and extremely long) career as a photographer, Elliott Erwitt has let his images speak for themselves. ‘It’s a nice picture,’ he will typically reflect. ‘I don’t know what else there is to say about it.’ It comes as a surprise then to hear the 87-year-old American being almost garrulous — by his standards — as he stands in front of his iconic portrait of Fidel Castro, a photograph he took two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, in 1964. ‘What I like about this one,’ he says, ‘is the way Castro looks quite pensive and unheroic, rather than glamorous. He was conscious of his image and this one catches him off guard. There was a little bit of vanity there with him. The outfit. The beard. The theatrical aspect. At that time, he seemed to me like a cowboy.’
The Castro photograph is the first you come to in an exhibition of Erwitt’s work at the Westergasfabriek Gallery in Amsterdam. New black and white images of Cuba, which Erwitt took when he revisited the country this summer, are exhibited alongside the ones he took of Castro (and Che Guevara) for a Newsweek assignment more than fifty years ago, some of which have never been seen before. And what is remarkable is how hard it is to tell which was taken when — such is his consistency of style.
What’s his secret? ‘Natural lighting. I work with one camera, a Leica, and three lenses. Highly portable. I try and blend into the background. Sometimes photographers brings a load of paraphernalia and assistants just to justify their budget.’
The new body of work was created to mark the inaugural Elliott Erwitt Havana Club 7 Fellowship, which is being run in conjunction by Havana Club rum, with additional funds being raised by the sale of seven limited edition prints. The object of the Fellowship is to ‘allow future generations to follow in Erwitt’s footsteps and capture the human condition through documentary photography in Cuba.’ It will be awarded annually, with the firstrecipient being announced in Spring 2016.
Though his curly hair is white now, Erwitt’s eyes are still alert and mischievous behind his big glasses, and they reflect his insouciant nature. Although he is a laconic man, what he does say is invariably laced with dry humour. When I ask if Cuba has changed much in fifty years, for example, he answers: ‘Well, the cars certainly haven’t.’
In terms of his subject matter he was, he says, ‘winging it’ on this latest trip. ‘Cubans are charming and welcoming and generous, in my experience. And I’m glad Obama is now offering them the hand of American friendship, even if Congress does have different ideas.’
Born in Paris in 1928, the son of Jewish Russian émigré parents, Elliott Erwitt spend his formative years in Milan before his family moved to Los Angeles and took American citizenship in 1939. ‘My career started when I was 16 and I took pictures for money in high school,’ he says. After that he moved to New York, where he still lives. ‘I wish, maybe, that my marriages had been more successful,’ is all he has to say on that subject.
One of his six children, Ellen, has accompanied him on this trip to Amsterdam. As a naked baby lying on a bed with her mother, she featured in one of his best-known photographs, and she seems to have inherited his deadpan delivery. ‘I’m used to travelling and I’m used to being photographed,’ she says when I meet her later, ‘both go with the territory of being a photographer’s daughter.’
Erwitt’s earliest published photograph was an amusing one, of a tiny, bulging-eyed Chihuahua standing next to its owner’s expensively shoed feet. It demonstrated the light touch that was to become his signature. The peripatetic and slightly random pattern of his life and career next saw him travelling back to Europe in 1951 when he was conscripted into the US army. While serving with a unit of the Army Signal Corps in Germany and France, he became a professional photographer for the first time and built up a portfolio. It soon came to the attention of the legendary wartime photojournalist Robert Capa, who, in 1953, signed him up to Magnum, the photographic agency he had co-founded, on the principle that photographers should be allowed to retain the rights to their work after publication. It was through Magnum that Erwitt met the photographer he still considers to be the greatest ever, Henri Cartier-Bresson.
The agency also opened a lot of doors for him, not least those to the Kremlin. ‘Press credentials get you into a situation,’ he says. ‘After that you need some personal enterprise. Many of my good pictures were taken while doing an assignment for someone else, because a lot of my work has come from travelling around the world. Things happen when you travel, that’s why I’ve always liked to do it.’
An early coup came in 1957 when he became the first western photojournalist to record scenes from the October Revolution parade of missiles in Red Square. He got access by attaching himself to a Soviet film crew. ‘Some of my better pictures were taken in the Soviet Union during the bad days, which was challenging.’ Another coup came when he captured Nixon jabbing Khrushchev in the chest as they argued. This seminal image came to symbolise the Cold War and led to Erwitt being given unprecedented access to photograph President Kennedy in the Oval Office. ‘JFK was quite informal,’ Erwitt recalls. ‘A charming man with a beautiful wife and lovely children.’ When Kennedy was shot, it was Erwitt who took the most haunting photograph of his widow. It showed her looking bewildered at the funeral. ‘I was terribly moved by it,’ he says. ‘At that time I was credited to the White House so I was able to follow those events closely.’
Although he has photographed political leaders and pop stars — notably Mick Jagger and Bob Dylan — the famous name with whom Erwitt is forever associated is Marilyn Monroe. A shadow of weariness passes over his hangdog features when I ask about her, but he nevertheless says: ‘I did have a number of sittings with her, which was a good thing as interest in her seems eternal, and the pictures I took are used a lot. It’s amazing to imagine she would be 90 years old right now. But you can’t imagine her at that age because that is part of her cult. It’s a great career move to die young. You become frozen in the images, immortalised in black and white. In the flesh she didn’t look extraordinary, but she looked better in photographs than she did in person. It was difficult to take a bad picture of her. She had a magnetic quality and was charming, intelligent and sensitive, but I also found her to be a tortured person and unhappy.’
When he refers to someone being ‘photogenic’, what does it mean to him? ‘Some people do look better in photographs than in person. Very often a supermodel who arrives on the set looks like a unmade bed, but after being worked on and photographed she looks terrific.’
So the camera does sometimes lie. What about his ordinary, everyday subjects, as opposed to his celebrity ones; does he ever feel guilty about invading their privacy? ‘Absolutely not, because I wouldn’t have taken half the pictures I did. I have had people see themselves in a book. One of my better-known pictures is of a couple in a mirror. I have had at least a dozen people claiming it is them and wanting money.’
And when he photographs an anonymous member of the public does he wonder what is going on in their heads, in their lives? ‘You do find yourself imposing your own narrative when a face is a blank canvas. There is a photograph in this new collection of a celebrated Cuban ballerina, who is now in her 90s and blind, and she is sitting with a young ballerina who I didn’t know. It is a very simple photograph but the expression on their faces is what makes the photograph. The second before, that expression wasn’t there and the second after it wasn’t there either. I find it a very touching picture — the young prima ballerina and the 90-year-old blind veteran.’
Does it feel magical when that happens? ‘You don’t always know it at the time but you do when you look at the contact sheets. Nothing was set up for it. It was just a combination of static and movement. Luck is essential. Without luck you don’t have pictures. And you have be patient, or impatient. Sometimes you have to provoke something or move around.’
He shouts something out? ‘Once in a while. Sometimes I use a horn to make people turn around.’
He thinks the ease of using modern digital cameras engenders a certain laziness in the photographer. ‘There is big difference between people taking endless shots hoping to get the right one and people working to make photographs. It is the same as someone using a pencil to be a poet or write a shopping list. You need more than a pencil to be a poet. It’s how you see things rather than how things present themselves. Digital is cheaper and more efficient and you can view it right away, but there is an integrity and quality that comes with a film. And one of the troubles with seeing everything instantly is that people check what they have got and miss what they could have had.’
When asked what his best picture is he is wont to answer: ‘The next one’. But if he was to be remembered for only one image, I press, what would it be? ‘The smiling black boy with the gun to his head.’ Why? ‘It is so open to interpretation, and so full of contradiction.’
One of my favourites, I say, is the one in which the s-curve of a heron’s neck mirrors the angle of the outdoor tap it is standing near. It always makes me smile, that one. ‘I don’t get up in the morning and decide to be humorous,’ he says. ‘It’s a matter of being observant.’ So, be observant. Any other advice for aspiring photographers? ‘Be sure to take the lens cap off before photographing.’ Clearly he had privileged access back in his White House days, but what about when he had to hunt with the press pack? ‘I preferred to go around the back, behinds the scenes, away from them, because apart from anything else photographers can be so rude. When there is red meat on offer, it’s dog eat dog.’
While we are on the subject of dogs, why is he so obsessed with them? He has published more than twenty books of photographs and quite a few of them have been about dogs. ‘What’s not to like?’ he asks. ‘They are very photogenic, they are everywhere and they don’t ask for prints.’
On his recent trip to Cuba he encountered a ‘wonderful’ farm dog, the rear of which can be seen in one of the photographs in the exhibition. ‘He came to me and wouldn’t go away, so I brought him back to the States. He had to go from Havana to Nassau, then we had to get him papers to get him through US customs in Miami. He is now with my son in New York.’ He chuckles at the absurdity of it all. ’It was very impractical, but what else could I do? He chose me.’
The Elliott Erwitt Havana Club 7 Fellowship was launched on November 1st 2015. For more information, please visit www.havana-fellowship.com