It’s always a pleasant surprise when you stumble upon an artist who doesn’t like talking about himself. Throughout Elliott Erwitt: Silence Sounds Good, the titular documentary photographer comes across as someone who has somewhere else to be. He has little patience when asked for explanations of his work. Who could blame him? Either it was instinctual, and there’s nothing to explain, or you’re confident enough in your ideas to let them be parsed out on their own. It’s well-known that jokes die when they have to be explained, and the same can be said for any creative endeavor.
Throughout his distinguished career, Erwitt has photographed presidents, popes, dictators, dogs, rock stars, and non-famous people who seem to have more presence than all those mentioned above combined—if you don’t include the dogs. As a fan of John Huston’s Misfits, I was particularly attracted to his behind-the-scenes photograph of the film. In the picture are Huston, Arthur Miller, Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, Eli Wallach, Montgomery Clift, and a guy I don’t recognize. If there had only been a golden retriever, the picture would be an all-time great.
Anyway, the documentary surrounds Erwitt from three different angles. You get a retrospective, a glimpse of his current day-to-day life, and his adventure back to Cuba where Erwitt did some of his most notable work in the ’60s. All of this is wrangled by Erwitt’s buddy, Adriana Lopez Sanfeliu. It never feels scatterbrained or pulled in too many different directions, which would have prevented it from going anywhere. Instead, you get—if not a 360-degree perspective—what feels like an honest, nontheatrical portrait of the artist as an old man.
“…Erwitt has photographed presidents, popes, dictators, dogs, rock stars, and non-famous people…”
That’s due, in large part, to the old man himself. When asked to explain his photographs, Erwitt’s caginess and irritability might come off to some as a failure to get answers, but his opposition is the best answer. There’s a throwback interview in the movie where Erwitt is asked about his self-portraits, which are goofier than his usual work. In one, he’s picking his nose; in another, he’s dressed like one of the sperm in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask); another has him in a blond wig. The interviewer asks him, “what are you really saying about the whole question of personal identity?” He smiles and says, “nothing, I guess.”
Either the concepts of good humor and self-deprecation are too foreign to some people, or the desire to sterilize everything in academic-speak is too great. More likely, perhaps, is that by asking the most ostentatious question possible, you can successfully signal to listeners that you’re a smart cookie, making the interview about yourself, rather than your subject. Nothing about Erwitt conveys that he wants to make things about himself, even his life story.
It seems like if Erwitt wrote an autobiography, it would be about someone else. This attitude, his expansive body of work, and the clean packaging by Sanfeliu make Elliott Erwitt: Silence Sounds Good a worthwhile watch.
"…nothing about Erwitt conveys that he wants to make things about himself, even his life story."