Saturday, 2 April 2011

Elliott Erwitt - The Writer's Photographer?

A writer has always to be on the lookout for the unusual, the quirky, and the subject ripe with possibility for development.

I find inspiration coming at me from all sorts of angles – a face in a crowd, a piece of music, a chance remark overheard (or eaves-dropped upon – there, I admit it: I listen to other people’s conversations in caf├ęs and restaurants, and on the bus and the train, and in the queue at the supermarket, and have been known to edge just a little closer to be able to hear more clearly).

Over the past few days, I have been mining some of my husband's photography books for ideas, and I've gravitated particularly to the work of Elliott Erwitt, a favourite documentary photographer. Erwitt is the master of the candid image, and loves to celebrate the bizarre and the absurd. I’m only just beginning to recognise what a gold-mine his photographs might prove to be in the search for inspiration, and the development of character, situation and plot.

For instance, in his book Museum Watching, a wonderfully entertaining collection of images of people visiting or working in museums, there is a photograph of an elegant bronze statue of Eros, aiming an arrow from his bow. Our viewpoint is from behind the statue; further ahead, walking towards us down a corridor, is a man, almost silhouetted against the pale walls and parquet flooring.

The fact that the man exists in the photograph, perhaps as the target for Eros' arrow, gives it a whole rich new layer of meaning. As soon as I saw it, my imagination started reeling. My first thought was, how can I use this? This was followed closely by, how would this story be different if the man had been walking away, rather than towards us?

Something I'm only just beginning to realise is what a lot of patience, determination and sheer hard work must go into these images, which look so natural and effortless. That has made me feel so much better. I'll explain.

I often find that I feel really deflated having seen a brilliantly-scripted film or read a really well-crafted book. The reason? It's because it has been done so well that it's been made to look as if it came simply to the writer, probably instantaneously and fully-formed. I come away believing I could never achieve anything approaching what I've just seen; I assume the writer is a true genius and that he probably threw the whole thing together before breakfast and still had time to walk the dog. This is ludicrous, of course.

Elliott Erwitt's images are deceptively simple, but how long did he have to stand in one spot to capture one image, and how often did he return home after a day’s work with nothing he was satisfied with? How many hours has he practised, over his life-time as a photographer, to achieve such stunning results? A lesson to anyone trying to do anything in a creative field, then: the greatest results will only ever be achieved as a result of hard work and determination.

But patience, practice and sheer hard work aside, Erwitt's real gift is for seeing the world around him in a certain way and being open to its limitless possibilities.

As writers, particularly if we are to be original, this is something we must nurture in our own lives too. We must constantly watch and listen; we must question what we see and hear. And most of all we must be open to the direction, often unpredictable and surprising, in which our observations lead us.

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