Soon enough, he discovered the work of street photographers Henri Cartier-Bresson, Eugene Atget and other "people who started it all. . . . These were the great people in photography who saw things, and did them without any particular purpose other than just to record what they saw, what they felt. Their pictures are emotional, they're visual; they're what pictures should be."
By 1947, Erwitt was making regular trips to New York City, where Capa, Steichen and photography editor Roy Stryker helped the young photographer win occasional assignments from magazines and Sunday newspaper supplements. When he was drafted into the Army a few years later, Erwitt continued shooting pictures with a small Leica with a collapsible lens, ultimately winning a $1,500 prize from Life magazine. One photograph from that period, of a soldier marching through basic training with his tongue hanging giddily out of his mouth, is included in the Hawkins Gallery show.
"Certainly this \o7 art\f7 business has developed since then," he says of contemporary perceptions of his work, along with that of certain other Magnum photographers. "I think at that time it was just a very good way to do something that you liked. It was not just making a living. It's also having a lifestyle that you liked. It was an opportunity to travel, to see things, to have something to do with the human condition. But I don't think you could have sat back and said 'Well, today I'm an artist,' or 'This is my art.' You just tried to lead an interesting life, and hope that something good came of it."
Erwitt is doing far less of the photojournalism Magnum photographers were once most famous for, though not because he's no longer interested in the work. Contemporary American magazines have simply shifted their emphasis toward more manufactured glamour portraits of celebrities. He calls Life magazine, for instance, once the publisher of such celebrated photojournalists as W. Eugene Smith and Alfred Eisenstaedt, a "disaster" now.
Erwitt's emphasis these days is on collections of his black-and-white work in books. At least a third of the pictures at the Santa Monica retrospective are culled from his 1991 book "On the Beach," all shot at or near the beaches of France, Italy, Ireland, New York, California and elsewhere.
He says he found people at the beach generally open to being photographed, regardless of what state of undress they were in. "Very often people are exhibitionists, and they like to have their picture taken, or they don't mind too much if you take it," Erwitt says. "It's really a matter of instinct and how you approach people. . . . You have to use your nose a little bit. You have to be a little bit sensitive to the situation. I've never really gotten into trouble, except in Arab countries, where people don't like to be photographed, period."
In a few days, Erwitt was to travel to Japan, ready for the opening of another exhibition of his work, this one entirely of dog pictures. These same photographs are to be collected in another book, to be published in the United States this fall. A few of his dog pictures appear at the Hawkins Gallery, including one of a small terrier in Ireland that seems to be comically floating a few inches above the ground.
"I take pictures of anything that goes under my nose, and a lot of dogs are under my nose," he says. "And I find dogs sympathetic. They're easy subjects. And I very much like the anthropomorphic qualities of dogs. Therefore I feel when I take pictures of dogs, I'm really taking pictures of people, or a manifestation of people."
In any case, it's just another suitable field for the odd juxtapositions, awkward moments, and strange postures and expressions that Erwitt catches. "I don't get up in the morning and say, 'I'm going to be funny.' If it's there, that's fine. I would like to think that it's more observation than anything else.
"One criticism I might have of some of my colleagues is that for some reason photographers take themselves terribly seriously, which is unfortunate. I don't think there is any reason for it."