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Classic Moments

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Elliot Erwitt is an artist who has been many things to many people. Born in Paris in 1928 and raised in New York and California, he pursued a career in news, advertising and fashion photography. Despite all that, he is probably best known for his personal work, images with a touch of humor and an eye for the humane. When the great French photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson was becoming known for his "decisive moments," Erwitt was proud of what he called his "indecisive moments."

His serious side and his more humorous or ironic side are both on view in this exhibition of his Southern work. Although he produced some iconic images of the Deep South during the last decades of segregation, his photos of Louisiana, and especially New Orleans, are almost totally unknown, so this show at the Ogden is a revelation of sorts. Much of this is early, from the late 1940s and early '50s, during and after his college years when his father was in the antiques business in the French Quarter. It was a time before mass tourism, when the port was still the biggest employer, and all the wharfs, warehouses and dockside industries gave the city a grittier, more industrial quality that gradually faded as docks gave way to convention centers and cruise liners. That gritty port-city aura is perfectly captured in New Orleans, 1950, a panoramic view of a steam engine belching smoke as it rolls into a maze of docks and warehouses. (Elia Kazan's equally gritty noir classic starring Richard Widmark, Panic in the Streets, was filmed on location in New Orleans that same year.)

Amid all this stands a vastly oversized Christmas candle — probably an elaborately decorated streetlight — looking totally surreal in the industrial landscape. I suspect this was actually the area just above the Canal Street ferry landing before the International Trade Mart and other tall buildings gentrified the area. It's a scene that predates Ignatius J. Reilly, but that Christmas candle evokes Canal Street back when many people shopped at the D. H. Holmes and Maison Blanche department stores. Other local shots from the '50s include an office portrait of notorious segregationist politico Leander Perez back when he ran Plaquemines Parish with an iron hand, as well as some obsessively hand-scrawled anti-Perez graffiti.

Images from elsewhere in the South include a stark photo of two water fountains against a grimy wall. Over one hangs a sign that says "White." Above the other, the sign reads "Colored," and you think it's South Africa but it's North Carolina, 1950. Amid those grim reminders of the bad old days are many slices of ordinary life: beach scenes at Daytona, bouncy cheerleaders in Gulfport, Miss., and images of people who appear well adjusted to the racist society of the time. It's to Erwitt's credit that he can depict the irony of evil coexisting among people who seem otherwise normal and even nice.

The survey exhibition of his Classics at A Gallery for Fine Photography will remind photography buffs of why Elliot Erwitt is such a familiar name. Here legendary images line the walls, including NYC (Small Dog, Woman's Feet), 1946, a street level view of a Chihuahua in a sweater staring bug-eyed at the camera, California Kiss, 1955, a photo of a couple kissing, seen through the rear view mirror of their car, and Guanajuato, 1957, a view of a couple arguing in the Mexican catacombs as the mummified dead, wearing expressions of eternal agony, look on. Throw in some candid shots of Marilyn Monroe, Playboy Bunnies in Chicago, and a vast Wyoming landscape and you have a documentary equivalent of Walt Whitman's poetry, the visual lyrics of a land and its people — the legacy of a photographic genius who made it all look easy.

Elliot Erwitt's New Orleans, 1950, provides a rare look at a grittier and more industrial postwar New Orleans waterfront.
  • Elliot Erwitt's New Orleans, 1950, provides a rare look at a grittier and more industrial postwar New Orleans waterfront.

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