Elliott Erwitt’s Found Not Lost
This book further underscores how classifying, sifting, and intuiting what is essential from one's own production is key to the artistic process.
Elliott Erwitt, Edited by Vaughn Wallace
(Gost Books, 2021)
From the title alone, Found Not Lost is declarative of recovery and hope, as much as a refusal to let things wane or vanish. In 2018, photographer Elliott Erwitt—who was mentored by Edward Steichen and contributed visuals to magazines like Life and Holiday—made it his mission to review the totality of images dormant in his Upper West Side studio. This archive spanned, as editor Vaughn Wallace indicates in the foreword, “negatives he developed in the laundry room at home when he was a teen all the way through photos taken on assignment recently in Scotland and Cuba” (he is 92). With this completist ambition, Erwitt fashioned an alternative canon regarding his body of work. As such, Found Not Lost is not only a visual showcase of overlooked images, but further underscores how classifying, sifting, and intuiting what is essential from one’s own production is key to the artistic process, perhaps as much as the creative act itself. (The editing took two years: some 600,000 previously unpublished images were shaved down to 171.) The definitive oeuvre is a falsehood: Found Not Lost shows how sidelined work—“those images that you missed when you first saw them a few lifetimes ago,” per Wallace—can be reconsidered and even reframe a legacy, be it the way the artist regards the work, or the way viewers do.
Erwitt’s personal trajectory was peripatetic: Born in Paris in 1928 to Russian parents, his childhood was spent in Italy before he emigrated to California in 1939; he then returned to Europe in the 1950s, where he joined Magnum and commenced his métier. His professional path had even further breadth, taking him to the Loire Valley, Venice, Detroit, Puerto Rico, Leningrad, Prague, Rio de Janeiro, Beijing, Arkansas, Valencia, Perth, Mykonos, and Dallas. The photographs in the book were often shot between assignments. While Erwitt’s travels are wide-reaching, the sense of intimacy he captures—moments of solitude when the subject thinks no one is looking, or spirited interpersonal dynamics within clusters of people—often transcends locus (American signs for guns or gift baskets or gambling halls notwithstanding). As an ensemble, the images highlight vulnerabilities and amusements across time and place.
The images, labeled with location and dates rather than titles, were selected and sequenced by Erwitt himself. He identified patterns or complements, matching the resonant images deliberately like a parlor game, evidencing a sly humor. He powerfully creates moments of folly, sweetness, malaise, and reckoning with juxtapositions that change their respective meanings. Two men seen from behind in billowing black church robes (Milan, 1949) walk as a single unit beneath an umbrella. The two are placed across from an image of two little Black girls standing side by side (New Orleans, 1947) wearing different expressions (a smile, a skeptical eye) and clutching dolls that double as racial symbols (one white, one Black). Formally, the images both feature duos, but the homogeneity of the two men highlights the asymmetrical vibe of each girl.
Sometimes, by sheer proximity, two images communicate in a way they couldn't have independently. A 1962 image called Spring break (localized in Fort Lauderdale) features a hefty man; his bucket hat is affixed with a pin that reads “I LIKE SEX” and he’s louchely stroking his lips with his thumb. On the opposite page is a blonde woman’s back (New Orleans, 1950), her creamy shoulders exposed above a confectionary tulle dress. She’s perched on a bar stool, informally snacking at the counter; a crumpled tissue lays on the floor near the hem of her dress. On its own, the image is a snapshot of a pretty woman caught in a casual moment. But placed across from the spring breaker, she appears unwitting to unsavory predators, and thus chillingly vulnerable.
Sometimes, the photo placement feels less like a dialogue and more like reinforcing two sides of the same coin. An image of a ballerina mid-performance, perched upon her pointed toes, is shown alongside a mannequin with arched feet and no arms. The female silhouettes take up the same amount of frame and, whether living or inert, are there to be scrutinized. Elsewhere, a bone-chilling picture of hooded Ku Klux Klan figures in Seville, Spain—ghostly draped fabrics obscuring any sign of human detail—faces a blank white page. There is nothing its menace can mirror or converse with.
There are equally moments of levity and humor, notably the endearing silliness of a posture caught unaware. A man with his head cocked towards the sky in New York City (1948) faces an image of a man sprawled in the grass in Oakland (1949), t-shirt cast over his eyes as though humbled by Helios. Both men communicate their deference to the sun, and the acute pleasure of the urban outdoors.
The final image of Found Not Lost is also the cover of the book (justified to the left below the large bold title). It features two figures seen from behind, walking apace; a small child’s noodly arm is outstretched to meet the pendulous adult one. The two are perfectly framed relative to the vanishing point of a tree-lined path in London’s St. James’s Park (1952), the landscape bereft of other figures. It conveys two generations solemnly joined, opening and concluding the book with a touching moment of forward motion.