CNN Photos

‘Being funny is serious business’

Legendary photographer Elliott Erwitt has been making photographs since the age of 16. As he turns 85 on July 26, CNN looks back at memorable photographs he has made of older people throughout his career.

Erwitt has a remarkable ability to transcend language and capture humorous moments of everyday life, something few photographers can consistently pull off.

The Paris-born photographer of Russian descent grew up in Milan and moved to the U.S. in 1939 with his family. He was drafted into the Army in 1951. When he found out anti-aircraft training positions were filled, he asked to be put in a darkroom and was a photographer’s assistant in France and Germany. He also shot photo assignments on the side during those years.

When he moved to New York in the 1950s, he met Robert Capa, a founder of the prestigious Magnum Photos, and began to freelance for the cooperative when he left the Army in 1953.

He dabbled in the film business in the early 1980s, making 18 films, and the only regret he mentions in the interview was not continuing that work.

He still takes assignments and says they've gotten better as he's gotten older. He is publishing his first color book this year, a project called “Kolor.”

Actually, he clarifies, he’s published color books before under a fictitious name; he didn’t want the work associated with his name.

“It seemed like a good idea at the time,” he said from his studio in New York. He used the pseudonym André S. Solidor, which seemed like a pompous name suitable for the self-described pompous photographs. Also, the initials are A-S-S.

That’s just a small example of the veteran photographer’s quirky personality.

In addition to his reportage work, he’s known for comical photos of dogs and witty photographs showing slices of life. His sense of humor seeps into his work, maybe more often than he intends.

“I don’t get up in the morning and decide to be funny,” Erwitt said. Later he added, “Being funny is serious business.”

“His personality measures up to his photographs,” said Karen Probasco, Magnum’s editorial manager. Amazing pictures, amazing personality.

His body of work is expansive and stretches across almost seven decades. It earned him the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011 from the International Center of Photography in New York.

“I think of him as a really great observer,” Probasco said: He captures pieces of life that we usually don't see.

Erwitt started as a journalist and says that was the most interesting time of his career.

“I’ve taken some nice pictures and some stupid ones,” he said, with nothing else to add about his legacy. “I’m pretty satisfied with what I’ve done.”

- Elizabeth I. Johnson, CNN