Elliott Erwitt's dogs (and an exhibition in Castelnuovo Magra to learn about them)

The great photographer Elliott Erwitt always loved dogs, which are often the subjects of his photos. Here are some photographs of dogs on display in Castelnuovo Magra!

When Steve McCurry arrived in Castelnuovo Magra at the end of June to give his lectio magistralis on photography (and we, as you know, were there), he said it loud and clear: Elliott Erwitt ’s photography of animals was a great source of inspiration for him. And dogs were especially the animals that Erwitt loved (and still loves) to portray in his photographs.

Many of these canine portraits are now on display at Icons, Elliot Erwitt’s photographic exhibition that, after stops in Aosta and San Gimignano, arrives in Castelnuovo Magra: it is set up inside the Tower of the Castle of the Bishops of Luni and will remain open until October 11.

The exhibition unfolds along the six floors of the tower: the photographs have all been arranged on chestnut trestles, the same as the floors and steep stairs of the Tower: a continuity has even been created by perfectly matching the floorboards and the trestles themselves!

As we walk through the different floors of the tower, we admire Elliott Erwitt’s splendid photographs: 42 shots selected by the photographer himself, considered by him to be the most significant of his career. These range from the 1940s to the present day, as we note from the place and year, written on the easel under each work, in which the photographs were taken. The photographs on display are in black and white, with the exception of two self-portraits placed on the sixth floor of the tower. After all, Erwitt’s artistic production is mostly in black and white, as McCurry himself stated in Castelnuovo, who pointed out in this regard what distinguishes the two photographers at first glance (Erwitt’s black and white contrasted with the colors of McCurry’s photos), but above all what they have in common: practical experience, travel, direct encounters with people from all over the world.

We were saying about the dogs: here, we were particularly intrigued by the shots depicting dogs of different breeds and sizes in strange and even funny situations. One could say that displaying so many photographs of dogs in a single exhibition is a characteristic feature of Erwitt: he himself says he loves his four-legged friends, but it would have been quite coincidental that he has devoted so many shots to dogs throughout his career. One fine day he realized that he owned so many of them in his archive!

A very cute little dog jumping immediately stands out to our eyes. It’s not magic: the little dog on his owner’s leash almost seems to be flying, holding his little paws outstretched, with a funny expression, also given by the black spot surrounding his right eye. Looking at it this way, it would appear to be a photo taken by a fortuitous circumstance, but in fact the shot of the dog is well thought out. In fact, Erwitt was in 1989 in Paris and had decided to summon some dogs to the set; usually Elliott, in order to achieve spectacular effects in quick time, used tricks, and on this occasion he had decided ... to bark to trigger the dogs’ reaction! One bark, but firm and loud: suddenly all the dogs jumped, barked, growled, while he shot thus capturing the animals in their naturalness.

If this photo expresses sympathy, we are similarly attracted to a very elegant dog: the only subject of the scene, a greyhound with an elongated muzzle looking sideways wearing a rose around its neck. It is a shot in tribute to Liz Tilberis, editor-in-chief of the famous fashion magazine Harper’s Bazaar, who passed away in April 1999 due to cancer. In her honor, artists, photographers and stylists from around the world produced a special issue of Bazaar completely in white to recall the color of Liz Tilberis’ hair (and she was also nicknamed La Blanche because of this characteristic): Erwitt participates with this very dog.

Steve McCurry visita la mostra Icons
Steve McCurry visits Icons in Castelnuovo Magra. Photos: top, New York, 2000 and the tribute photo of Blanche. Bottom, Birmingham 1991 and Felix, Gladys and Rover. Tower of the Castle of the Bishops of Luni, Castelnuovo Magra.

To keep with the beauty theme, here is a shot of a dog sheared to perfection for a fashion show: the beautiful poodle, following the canine display with much interest, appears to be wearing a short lady’s fur coat with ankle boots. Next to her, who seems to want to express her opinion, some ladies follow the competition. We are in Birmingham, in 1991, and Crufts, the largest dog show in the entire world, is taking place in the English city, which continues its activity to this day: thirty thousand dogs groomed, sometimes even ridiculously, participate in the show to immediately impress the jury! And it is precisely in this sense that we should read Elliott Erwitt’s shot: the desire to show off one’s dog results in situations bordering on the grotesque. And here what is comical is not only the poodle’s appearance, but perhaps also her curiosity in leaning over the barriers, as if she wants to watch, moreover with a certain tension, the competition.

But in his photographs Erwitt also intends to emphasize sociological aspects. We notice this in this shot that is meant to highlight the idea that dogs and owners look alike (remember Disney’s The Charge of 101?): on the steps of Elliott’s house in New York City in 2000, a neighbor of the photographer along with his two small bulldogs sit blissfully. Erwitt notices so much similarity between dog and master that he waits to catch the moment when one of the two dogs sits on top of the master, covering his face and replacing it with his snout. The result is then the impression that the man’s face is transformed into the muzzle of his four-legged companion. Simply spectacular!

Erwitt always tries to take his pictures from the dogs’ point of view: often the photographer places his lens at dog height, letting only the legs and feet of his owners be seen, as in the 1946 shot in New York, his first published photograph (the artist was, at the time, eighteen years old): the little dog in the sweater appears tiny compared to his mistress, whose feet are only visible, creating a stunning contrast.

USA, New York, 1946
USA, New York, 1946. Elliott Erwitt/Magnum Photos.

In 1974 Elliott would reprise the framing of this last shot in the photo titled Felix, Gladys and Rover: Rover is a funny little dog in a sweater and woolen hat, who appears tiny compared to his mistress Gladys, whose only black boots are visible, and even compared to his friend Felix, a Dane with tapered front legs. There is no shortage of contrasts here as well: not only between the different heights, but also between the Dane’s elegant paws and his mistress’ legs constricted in winter boots. Photographs researched and crafted by Erwitt’s creativity and photographs of casual situations that have become world-famous for the uniqueness of the subject portrayed.