Images from a master of the moment

'Personal Best' celebrates the 60-year career of Eliott Erwitt with a collection of 350 photos selected by Erwitt himself.

"I'll always be an amateur photographer," Eliott Erwitt once insisted. In the same breath, he noted that the word amateur comes from Latin for "to love," and a passionate lover of photography Erwitt has remained for the past 60 years.

Personal Best reveals, one page at a time, Erwitt's mastery of the "indecisive moment." These 350 images chosen by Erwitt himself (two-thirds never before published) include offbeat images of Hollywood icons like Marilyn Monroe and political figures like Richard Nixon (caught conducting his infamous "kitchen debate"), as well as delightful "snaps" of everyday moments such as those shared by a man and his dog.

Born Elio Romano Erwitz in Paris, 1938, to Russian parents, Erwitt immigrated with his family to New York City, and at age 16 was left to fend for himself in Los Angeles. Eventually he made his way back to the Big Apple after overseas posts with the United States Army. In the 1950s, Erwitt captured the attention of Robert Capa, Edward Steichen, and Roy Styker and was invited to join Magnum Photos agency in 1953.

Erwitt built a career doing documentary work and corporate advertising for Holiday, Paris Match, and other magazines. But everywhere he went, Erwitt always carried two cameras – one for his commercial work, and then another, a Leica rangefinder, for personal pictures. "Personal Best" is a chance to enjoy many of the images taken for Erwitt's own pleasure.

The collection is a visual delight, despite a somewhat flawed design. A 12-pound book with 448 pages, "Personal Best" is quite an undertaking to comb through. Almost every page stretches images edge to edge across 21 inches, offering the reader a close-up look into the frame, but also leaving him straining to decipher the action and composition lost in the center seam.

Also, Erwitt does not include any of his own anecdotes for contextual reference. With a personal collection of work, a reader might hope for more than just dates and locations of images.

But perhaps that's what Erwitt prefers. "Making pictures is a very simple act," he once told a journalist. "There are no great secrets." This collection allows us to appreciate the work of a master, to savor each photograph as a "moment," a slice of life.

Mary Knox Merrill is a Monitor photo editor.

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