Misha Erwitt: Street Smart

Misha Erwitt: son of a legendary Leica photographer, a former Magnum photographer and newspaper photojournalist, his work is now being showcased at the Leica Gallery in New York

A native New Yorker, Misha Erwitt grew up around photography and some of the best photographers in the world and was incurably bitten by the photography bug. After a career that includes an 11-year stint as a staffer for the New York Daily News and a three-year association with Magnum shooting internationally, this brilliant L.A. based photographer now has a show at the Leica Gallery that he hopes to use as a springboard into the world of art photography. He modestly says he’s not an artist, but his engaging work proves otherwise. Here, in his own down-to-earth, unvarnished words, is his fascinating narrative.

Q: As a Leica guy, which cameras do you shoot with?

A: I typically use a Leica M7 and, of course, I shoot film. The digital M9 is a little out of my price range at this time. I do have a closet full of film Leicas including a treasured 1957 M3 I still use occasionally.

Q: Can you tell us something about your experiences as a photojournalist?

A: Sure, I was with Magnum for about three years and shot a lot of international stuff, mostly editorial in the Pacific Rim; one of my first assignments was documenting refugees. I was a newspaper photojournalist for 11 years and it was pretty great getting paid for what I was already doing anyway.

Q: As the son of a renowned photographer Elliot Erwitt, did your dad encourage you to pursue the same profession?

A: Not exactly. I grew up in an intensely photographic household and he lent me one of his well—worn brassed Leicas, but he actually encouraged me to become a filmmaker. I did attend film school for a short time, but taking pictures was just a natural thing in this environment. You could say I grew up in the film business.

Q: How would you describe the work that you’re doing now?

A: Well, right now I’m not taking too many photos so I’ve got to climb back on the horse and do it where I’m living, in L.A.  What I really like to do on my own is wander the streets with a Leica in my hand. Last week I took a picture of famed film and TV actress Dame Judi Dench for the New York Times. It reminded me of shooting for the New York Daily News where I used to work.

Q: What camera did you use for that assignment?

A: I had to use a digital camera, a Canon DSLR, but whenever I’m on assignment I always keep a Leica in my bag. Even if I know that I have to shoot digitally for a client, I always bring along a Leica. Right now I’m using digital SLRs professionally, but a Leica M7 for my personal work. It was a gift from a famous photographer I’m not going to mention. His initials are E.E.

Q: Which lenses do you use on your Leica M7?

A: I’m a big fan of 35, the 35mm f/2 Summicron. I do have a 35mm f/ 1.4 Summilux ASPH, but it’s heavy. I like the f/2 because it’s so small. I’ve never lost my affection for Leica cameras and the way they feel in your hands.

Q: How’d you get you first get into Leicas?

A: Well, I’d see my dad with his M3 and I just wanted one — the weight, the brassing from hard use, the way they looked. The first time he lent me one was during his 2nd marriage — it was like heaven.

Q: What is it about the Leica M that’s so special?

A: There are only a few things that are designed in a way that will outlast the people around them. The Fender Stratocaster guitar is one of them. Certain things are simply perfect and the Leica M is one of those things. What makes it the most perfect? It’s the rangefinder, the silent shutter, the small size (black ones in particular are very inconspicuous) and the ability to see outside of the frame. When you shoot with a Leica M, people don’t realize what you were doing until it’s over.

Q: What’s the story behind your current show at the Leica Gallery in New York? How did it come about?

A: It came about because the person whose work was scheduled for exhibition backed out at the last minute. That left Jay Deutsch (who runs the NYC gallery) in the lurch so he put my work in.  We’d been discussing this possibility for a while and by chance I happened to be in New York for the Life Magazine show so we got together. It was fortuitous. Also, there’s a certain amount of humor in Craig Semetko’s work so a combined exhibition of our work is a good fit.

Q: Can you tell us something about what part humor, whimsy or irony plays in your street photography?

A: Well I’ve done a lot of street photography in New York City so let me say something about that. New York is a constant parade of humanity. It’s a very familiar place, but it’s always changing. If you look around there are a lot of amusing juxtapositions, so yes, humor does play a definite part in my work and it’s an element in many of my Leica Gallery pictures that were shot in New York. By contrast, trying to take street pictures in L.A. is challenging. L.A. isn’t a walking city — I considered shooting drive-by pictures and I’m always taking pictures out of my car window, but then you have nowhere to park it. Let’s just say that L.A. isn’t as conducive to street photography.

Q: What kind of image does your Leica Gallery show present?

A: The name of the show is “Street Smart.” I had wanted to use Street Wise, but someone else had already taken it. When I first put it together in big hurry, the theme had already been decided by my co-exhibitor Craig Semetko, whose work was in a similar vein. About 85% of my pictures were shot on 35mm film with Leica.

Q: Have you ever considered shooting with a digital Leica other than the M9? The X1 is a large-sensor camera that certainly looks and feels like a Leica, albeit without a rangefinder.

A: Right now I’m saving my nickels and pennies because I’m definitely not opposed to a Leica M9. In any case, I like digital cameras with very large chips because I like to shoot in available darkness. The lower echelon digital cameras score on pricing, but you can’t do very good work in the dark. However, that seems to be changing. If I were a camera designer, the next one would have pro specs but look like an amateur camera. I really like the fact that I look like an amateur with a small camera. I don’t want to look like a pro because it changes the situation you’re trying to capture. I like the look of pictures when people don’t even realize they’re being photographed. An example is my picture of two elderly women sitting on a park bench next to two drag queens. That wasn’t shot with a Leica — I was working for the New York Daily News then and shot it with a 20mm lens on a Canon, you can see some barrel distortion around the edges.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have a series of pictures I’ve been doing, maybe subconsciously, about flags. They’re a metaphor for a lot of different things, many of them very emotional. I got them all together and put them up on my New York Times blog on July 4 (when else?) and I’ve received a lot of pointed comments both positive and negative. You can see them here. It seems that everybody else who does flag work included a link to their flag work in the responses. I guess it’s fitting that I’m do this project since I was born on Flag Day.

Q: What do you think motivated you to do a series on flags?

A: We were first generation Americans, raised in a European household, even though we all grew up in New York speaking English. Growing up, we stare up at the piece of cloth in grade school, recite these words of the Pledge of Allegiance we didn’t really understand. Is this nationalistic indoctrination? I’m not sure, but here in the United States, we do more with our flag than any other country. Really a lot of it has to with that. I was taking all these flag pictures and all of a sudden I had this big body of stuff and then I started doing it on purpose.

Q: Can you tell us more about your personal story as it relates to photography?

A: I never really wanted to do photography for a living. I liked it too much. I didn’t want to make it my job. I didn’t want to lose my affection for it. I was in the film industry, in film production for 13 years, started at the bottom, didn’t like it as much. It wasn’t the type of creative work that I wanted to be doing, but then I really lucked out and landed a job as a staff photographer at the New York Daily News. That was the happy medium I’d been looking for. Eli Reed, a good friend of mine, mentioned me to Eric Meskauskas, then Director of Photography for the News. At the time they had a lot of money to spend and their mission was to revamp the paper by upgrading the picture content, making it more exciting and immediate. I had no real desire, but wasn’t doing too much at the time. I went to see him and showed him my portfolio. Point blank he told me, “I like what I’m seeing, but this position requires five years experience at a smaller daily somewhere else. I’ll tell you what I can do — I’ll give you 89 days to prove yourself or wash out.” This was because on the 90th day you officially become a union member by the rules. Well, I figured 89 days of work is good. I needed the money. The first thing I had to do well was to shoot a two-page double-truck thematic picture to run in the center of the paper. It was kind of a competition among all the staffers to find something that can fill two pages of pictures to showcase your work, so I went down to CBGB on Sunday to shoot a slam dance and it ended up as a double-page spread and also wound up in the Leica Gallery show. I shot it with a Leica, but the walls of that cavernous hall were painted matte black so you actually had to light the entire space if you wanted to shoot the crowd. I got there before the concert started, brought a friend who was very tall and rigged a bug bunch of slaved Vivitar 283 flashes from the ceiling. We hung them all over the room, so every time I took a picture, my strobes went off all over the room. Unfortunately the slave units were light-triggered so any time someone else took a flash picture, it drained my batteries. I was a News staff photographer for 11 years and it was a lot of fun.

Q: What are you doing now?

A. For photojournalists, magazine photographers and practically anyone else, the pickings have become slimmer and slimmer and the field is extremely competitive. Everybody now is a photographer and in certain news situations all you need is a cell phone anyway. I’m doing my best to figure out a portal into the art world. That’s why I was very happy about the Leica Gallery show. I’m just a photographer and I don’t consider myself an artist. What’s the purpose of art — to divert people from their world, whether it’s a painting or a sculpture. So if there’s some way, whatever it is you’re looking at, that takes you away, takes you somewhere else that you’ve never been, that to me is art. In short, art is what elevates you to another place, a place you wouldn’t have gotten to otherwise.

Q: What was it like growing up in the Erwitt family?

A: When you grow up around deities like Henri Cartier-Bresson — remember all these guys were family friends that used to hang around — you realize that they’re just human beings like everyone else.

Q: Aren’t you a photographic artist, just like your old man?

A: By definition I guess I have to be to get a gallery show, but I’ve only done that a few times. The only time I really had a one-man show was at the old Daily News Building, the one with the giant rotating globe in the lobby, just two or three years after I’d signed on as a staff photographer. They lined the lobby with my photos; that was a great thing. I was the only one who got a show out of that. That put a lot of wind at my back. Now I’ve got to gain entry into the art photography world. Got to figure out a way to feed my photographic addiction. Editorial is shrinking, so I’ve got to figure out another way to continue. Yeah, I’m all for it.

Q: You did a very moving New York Times blog when your mother passed away. Can you tell us something about her?

A: She was a force of nature and she was there really at the beginning of Magnum, there beside my dad. She’s the lady in the picture you can see in my “The Woman in the ‘Family of Man’ Family” post on Lens.  Her particular take on photographers brought them down-to-earth. She told me what they were really like and her comments about some of the great photographers of the world weren’t always very flattering. My mother would take the stuffing out of those photographers that were way up on the pedestal. She’d tell me how one made a pass at her or another expected her to do his laundry when he was a guest in our house.

Q: Do you have any other projects in mind besides the flag photos?

A: The flag project is interesting because it elicits emotions. Few people are ambivalent about it and everyone sees it differently. Some people are genuinely offended by some of the images. If I get the book published I know it will be controversial, but I hope it happens. I’m also working on a series of images of my dog, Cosmo.

-Leica Internet Team

The Misha Erwitt “Street Smart” show is up alongside Craig Semetko “Unposed” at the Leica Gallery in NYC until February 26th. You can see more of Misha’s work on his website, http://www.mishaerwitt.com/.