4a Elliott Erwitt

Before you read any further, look carefully at Erwitt’s image and write some notes about how the subject matter is placed within the frame. How has Erwitt structured this image? What do you think the image is ‘saying’? How does the structure contribute to this meaning?

C&N [Boothroyd p. 98 [1]]
New York City, 1974 
Elliott Erwitt

This (fig. 1) is an image that rewards a detailed inspection. Superficially, the main subject is a tiny dog with a hat, which is always risible. A closer look reveals that:

  • the first pair of legs also belongs to a dog
  • the middle pair probably belongs to a woman (judging be he heels on the boots and the absence of trouser legs)
  • the photograph was taken outdoors probably in a park
  • probably in winter, given the clothing worn by the human subject and the small dog
  • the dog clothes appear to be elaborate, detailed, possibly hand-crafted and expensive
  • the human is walking the small dog and maybe the large dog too.

This is conjecture, but on a balance of probability, I would guess that the photograph was, to some extent, staged. This is on the basis that the photographer and his camera would have been visible to the human subject and therefore some degree of co-operation is likely, if only in remaining briefly still. An alternative might be that the photographer was sitting on a park bench with the camera on the ground with a cable release, but that is unlikely given the configuration of the path the subjects are walking.

Fig. 2
Elliott Erwitt,
New York City, 1974
contact sheet

Regarding the composition, the foreground offers a strong horizontal base, supporting an otherwise almost entirely vertical array, principally the legs, of course, but also the out-of-focus trees and whatever that is on the right, litter bin, tree support or whatever. The plane of focus encompasses the legs, but especially the small dog’s face which has an expression which can be anthropomorphically interpreted at the pleasure of the viewer.
It is notable that the photographer (or editor) has chosen to include a fragment of the large dog’s hind leg. The reason for this could only be known if the decision maker has revealed it – speculation is interesting but ultimately pointless.

[next day] Interestingly, I have found a contact sheet for fig. 1, shown as fig. 2. Although the image quality is poor, this at least shows us that this was not a grabbed shot (an entire 36-shot film), that there was at least a considerable degree of co-operation and the print is full frame.

The cmat goes on to make three points.
1. horizontals and verticals
2. crop (in camera) for the small dog;
3. although difference between a language and an image is that the former is delivered in a sequence chosen by the writer or speaker, in a photograph, it is all available to the viewer simultaneously who has the choice of which portions to concentrate on.

1. Boothroyd, S (2017) Context and narrative. Barnsley: Open College of the Arts.