Elliott Erwitt: Pittsburgh 1950 @ICP

JTF (just the facts): A total of 39 black and white photographs, framed in black and matted, and hung against mustard colored walls in a single room space on the main floor of the museum. No information on processes or physical dimensions was provided on the wall labels. All of the images were taken in 1950. The show was organized by Claartje van Dijk. (Installation shots below.)

A monograph of this body of work was published in 2017 by GOST Books (here).

Comments/Context: It’s not often that someone rediscovers the supposedly lost early work of a celebrated photographer. But in 2011, Vaughn Wallace, a student at the University of Pittsburgh, unearthed a trove of prints, negatives, contact sheets, and typewritten captions housed in the Pennsylvania Department of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh that were made by Elliott Erwitt when the photographer was just 22. The materials had been deposited there in 1953 (after the Pittsburgh Photographic Library project in which Erwitt had participated came to an end) and subsequently forgotten.

The Pittsburgh Photographic Library was the brainchild of Roy Stryker, the same man who had managed the now-famed documentary photography project of the Farm Security Administration during the Depression years. The idea in this case was to comprehensively document Pittsburgh’s transition from an industrial center to a modern city, and Stryker enlisted a selection of notable photographers (including Esther Bubley, Russell Lee, Arnold Eagle, and others) to canvass the streets and capture the wholesale transformations that were taking place there. Erwitt shot thousands of frames in Pittsburgh in just four short months, before he was drafted into the Army and left for Germany.

This exhibit provides a rare window back into the beginning of Erwitt’s long career, offering glimpses of the visual sophistication that would enliven his work for more than half a century. Erwitt saw the disappearing old life in everything from boarding houses to smoky row houses, and the contrasts between prim churchgoers and the girls on pin-up magazine covers and in swimsuits at Pitt football games allude to the realities of the changing social structures.

More lively are his images of the flashes of the new, mostly in the form of varieties of modern transportation. Not surprisingly, bridges play a central role (this is Pittsburgh after all, where three rivers come together), but men replacing train tracks and piles of cast off car tires tell a deeper story of movement and modernization. Erwitt finds forward action in new bridge girders towering over old wooden houses, demolition taking place behind a series of old doors (used as a sidewalk barrier), and neon lights turning rain slick streets into expressive abstractions. And a speeding train whistling by a stone saint provides a startling juxtaposition, with the future rocketing by the past in neat horizontal layers.

Erwitt repeatedly captures the incongruities of the dissonant times in Pittsburgh in his images of children, making pictures that mix light comedy with deeper cultural truths. A smiling black boy points a toy gun at his head, a young girl smokes a pretend cigarette, and another dainty youngster holding a bouquet of flowers is interrupted by the arrival of two stray dogs, all three photographs documenting kids with an edge of unease. A surreal image of stockings hanging on a clothesline highlights this uncertainty further, the disembodied legs left dangling and alone.

Clever storefront moments, from eyes peering out from behind a dinner menu or a chicken peeking out between the painted numbers of a poultry store display, presage the kind of witty visual humor that would become an Erwitt signature later in his career, but he never lets this playfulness distract him from a consistent sense of observant social realism. In photographs of a black woman waiting for the bus, a black girl playing with a white doll, and an older black woman looking at the hats on white mannequins in a store window, he sensitively documents the nuances of race in the 1950s, especially when set against images of the all white football fans, a few waving a Confederate flag.

Given how early these images were made in Erwitt’s career, it is somewhat surprising how consistently well crafted they are – we might have expected a bit more rawness, learning, and aesthetic readjustment to be going on. But even in his early 20s, Erwitt was exhibiting an enviable maturity of vision. While these images from Pittsburgh will likely end up as a small footnote to the larger arc of his artistic career, they are dotted with enough sparks of excitement to accurately forecast the photographic success he would have later.

Collector’s POV: Elliott Erwitt is represented by Magnum Photos (here) and Edwynn Houk Gallery (here). Erwitt’s photographs are consistently available in the secondary markets, with dozens of prints available every auction season. Recent prices have ranged between roughly $1000 and $26000, with most under $10000.

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Read more about: Elliott Erwitt, International Center of Photography, GOST Books

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