Although similarities exist between Elliott Erwitt’s style and that of Walker Evans or Imogen Cunningham, Erwitt’s images on view at Robert Koch Gallery in San Francisco have a unique perspective revealed in exceptional touches that set him apart from other great 20th-century photographers.
“Elliott Erwitt: New York,” running through May 29, features black-and-white photos of daily life captured by the veteran photographer, whose 50-year career has included work in journalism, fashion and advertising, and has been shown in the New York Museum of Modern Art and the Smithsonian Institution, among others.
An example of Erwitt’s distinctive style in “Third Avenue, New York City, 1954” is the fullness of detail of the restaurant — neon and painted signs, customers eating, coffee mugs, napkin holders — and a subtle variety of tones that not only lend an illusion of color to the photo, but create richness and a curious resemblance to painting.
The lonely-looking person sitting in the restaurant window evokes Edward Hopper’s iconic 1942 painting “Nighthawks.” Prices on the menu, “Lentil Soup 15 cents,” “Beef Stew 50 cents,” indicate when the photo was taken.
“New York City, 1955” conveys a powerful simplicity. By itself, the scene could not be more mundane: A woman standing behind an iron picket fence looks out at a New York City skyline. But Erwitt creatively contrasts the sharp focus of the woman and fence in the foreground with a soft focus skyline and heavy fog in the background that results in a photo of stunning beauty.
“Third Avenue L. New York City 1955” is notable due to its sharp contrasts. A boy standing in the last car of an elevated train looks out. The boy and the inside of the car are in foreground, almost in complete darkness and in soft focus. Outside, a multitude of train tracks and surrounding buildings are in sharp focus and minutely detailed, resulting in a forceful vividness.
Humor also characterizes Erwitt’s work, particularly his use of dogs. “New York City, 1953” shows the head of a charming but sad-faced pooch standing on a restaurant’s back booth, looking for attention from the next table.
Along with his unquestionable artistry, Erwitt’s seemingly endless inventory of subject matter makes this show a standout.
IF YOU GO
Elliott Erwitt: New York
Where: Robert Koch Gallery, 49 Geary St., Fifth Floor, San Francisco
When: 10:30 to 5:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; closes May 29
Contact: (415) 421-0122; www.kochgallery.com