Photographers Elliott Erwitt and Scott Peterman offer diverse views of the human landscape
Elliott Erwitt has given photographic history some of its most winsome and delectable images. But he doesn't sugarcoat his work, either.
As a refugee from European fascism and a peripatetic childhood, Erwitt has experienced enough turmoil to add some depth to the overriding effervescent optimism in his life's work for the prestigious Magnum Photos collective, where he has been a member since 1953.
His roving camera documented the segregated "colored" and "white" fountains of the American South. It observed two of America's most cherished obsessions — commerce and conquest — in a 1974 image of Army rockets next to a Coca-Cola vending machine in Huntsville, Ala.
Erwitt's images, currently on view at Jackson Fine Art, often deal in visual punch lines, the pithy, chuckle-inducing photographic corollary of a New Yorker cartoon. He delights in graphic juxtapositions: a seagull contemplating a jet; a Great Dane's legs paired with the twiggy stalks of a teacup chihuahua whose diminished station in life is enhanced by the humiliating crocheted outfit his owner has dressed him in.
Dogs are a favorite subject of Erwitt's for the amusing doppelganger they offer of their human keepers and for their singular qualities. Like much of his subject matter, dogs are funny and cute without being reducible to pure kitsch. They have an integrity that reaches outside the frame.
Sometimes Erwitt's juxtapositions go beyond visual wit into piquant commentary, as in his image of a solitary museum-goer regarding an oil painting of a fully clothed woman. Next to that female spectator is a raincoat brigade of men congregated before an oil painting of a fully nude woman. The photograph says pretty much all you need to know about the enormous divide between men and women.
Human nature's wiliness continues in an image of a Siberian wedding from 1967 in which a bachelor with a cocksure grin inspires sideways glances from the bride and groom seated next to him, as if to say, "What have we done?"
In his concise, witty images, Erwitt positions photography as a universal communicative tool that you don't need insider knowledge to appreciate.
But what Erwitt has to say is not just reducible to these individual shots. As the vintage images at Jackson illustrate, Erwitt's story is told on the installment plan — a long, varied essay about the human condition.
Other photographers have seen humanity in a different light. Diane Arbus saw humanity as tragic: sometimes broken and grotesque, sometimes broken and poignant. Weegee's human condition is an often shabby and sinister thing.
Erwitt's human specimens and his vision of life are touched by an earned, practiced whimsy that only someone who's been around the block a time or two can nail without too much unearned sentimentality.
Admittedly, Erwitt sometimes pushes the line between tenderness and treacle, as in "Provence" (1955), in which a father wearing a black beret and his son wearing a tinier beret bicycle their baguettes home from the market. The image looks like the kind of quaint eye candy used to lure Francophile tourists to the Continent. But you want to forgive Erwitt for such travelogues when he offers an image from 1953 of a young mother and her naked baby locked in each others' gaze, an image of blissful adoration made slightly comical by the presence of the third-wheel family cat also taking in the scene.
Erwitt titles his images by their geography — from Coney Island to Valencia. In doing so, he makes a link whose common theme might be encapsulated as simply "life," both global and intimate. It's little wonder that early in his career, Erwitt was included in Edward Steichen's love letter to the human species, the Museum of Modern Art's groundbreaking 1955 exhibition The Family of Man. Though sometimes marked by storm clouds, Erwitt's images tend to bolster the idea that the human race is a glass half-full rather than half-empty.
In Jackson Fine Art exhibitions, there's often a wonderful dialogue that emerges between the paired artists. So it's a disappointment to see work like Scott Peterman's, which feels like a pinprick to Erwitt's soap-bubble charms. Juxtaposed with Erwitt's simple, life-affirming pleasures, Peterman's work suffers in comparison, registering as a dry, esoteric conceptual exercise.
In his current body of work, Peterman surveys the cities and landscapes of Mexico, Brazil and the American West, finding eerily depopulated spaces where human traces are visible but actual human beings are nowhere to be seen. Peterman suggests landscapes and architecture working in direct opposition to human desires, though ultimately the work is too vague and unengaging to convince us that Peterman is onto something new.
It is a special pity, since Peterman's previous project at Jackson, Ice Houses, was such a captivating and successful meditation on landscape, architecture and absent human beings.