I’ll say right up front that I’m an Elliott Erwitt fan and so this book was one of the earliest additions to my book collection. It is far from a perfect book, but in this short review I hope to give you an idea as to what this book represents.
Published by Phaidon, Elliott Erwitt Snaps is a portly ‘Friar Tuck’ of a book. Measuring 19.4 x 5.7 x 27.3 cm (8 x 2.2 x 11 inches), weighing in at several kilograms and consisting of 512 pages (!), there is no shortage of paper in the package. My copy is the paperback version and was bought from Amazon second hand. It’s a well used copy, but was as cheap as chips. Were I to buy it today, I would buy it new and probably aim for the hardback version. This is because I think it is a fantastic book and one that I return to time and time again.
Please note that I have converted all but the first image in this review to B&W to quickly remove colour casts.
Firstly, let’s deal with the book’s less wonderful traits. It is printed on fairly nondescript paper at the more budget end of the spectrum (it has 512 pages, remember). The finish is ‘semi gloss’ and quite pleasant; however, the resolution and quality of reproduction is best described as ‘adequate’, in my humble opinion. There’s nothing showy about the cover. No high-end materials are used and we’re now left with little to consider beyond the content. Thankfully, it is best described as comprehensive, studded with gems and has another quality I will come to later on.
The book contains very little text; after all, it is titled ‘Elliott Erwitt Snaps‘ and this tells us quite a lot about what to expect. This book is indeed a book of snapshots covering most of Elliott Erwitt’s career. It has been divided up into themed sections, such as ‘Rest’, ‘Touch’, ‘Look’ etc. and this does help to bind the images together somewhat. This is one of the qualities I like most about Elliott Erwitt’s work: it needs no explanation. His images don’t even require captions, because they serve very little purpose. Elliott Erwitt is the quintessential street photographer, with a little reportage in the mix. He photographs what catches his eye and while some images offer a degree of political or social commentary relevant to the time, most are just, well, ‘snaps’. I don’t say this to diminish his work, but instead to recognise that Erwitt’s approach sits right at the core of what photography is. To reference David B. Jenkins’ recent article ‘Don’t Call It Photography‘, this is arguably a great example where photography is at it’s strongest and purest: well-seen photographs of the world as it is.
The book is laid out as a mixture of double page spreads, single page spreads (normally portrait format images) and two images to a page. It works OK, but the portrait format of the book means that when single landscape format images are printed on a single page, they end up rather small. Quite a number of cracking images are presented in a rather sub-optimal fashion; however, I read an in depth post by someone in publishing and they explained why various formats are chosen. As you might expect, it comes down to cost and that may explain the compromises we quickly notice with Elliott Erwitt Snaps.
If you already know Eliott Erwitt’s work and have some of your favourite images in your head, I would be surprised if you don’t find them in this book. It really is a comprehensive, perhaps definitive, selection of the man’s work. This means that there is no need to purchase several books to ensure you’re not missing some of his best work in your collection. Elliott Erwitt Snaps is readily available too, which makes completing your collection of his work a very easy task.
Now I can raise one aspect of this book as both a weakness and strength: Elliott Erwitt Snaps contains quite a number of very pleasant, but forgettable photographs. The publisher could easily have cut the number of images in the book to a third, or even a quarter. This would have allowed them to raise quality and there would certainly be an argument for that. However, on balance, I am glad the book’s less magnificent images are there. They tell us how Elliott Erwitt thought, what drew his eye and where he strolled. They also make him mortal. From this final point, every photographer can draw inspiration and energy. This book is the antithesis of Steve McCurry The Unguarded Moment, which is a completely different book by a completely different photographer, despite both working in similar genres.
Elliott Erwitt Snaps is a book that reminds us that brilliant photographs that will never tire are no more than an enjoyable stroll away.
P.S. Some of you may wonder how I can enjoy these images and also have written the article ‘Is Street Photography Killing Itself‘. It is true, Elliott Erwitt does use juxtaposition and irony; however, it isn’t forced and it’s just one of the many approaches he uses. I find humour, playfulness and humility in his images that makes all the difference. There’s no faux edge, or drama. They’re just wonderful photographs that are surely the product of a curious, yet humble nature.
Here are many more example pages/spreads.
Here are some Amazon links to hardback and paperback versions of this book.