Capturing the Nation

Capturing the Nation

Macallan's latest master of photography talks about his career, single malt and Marilyn

People | 25 Oct 2013 | Issue 115 | By Liza Weisstuch

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You'd be hard pressed to find someone on Earth who's unacquainted with Elliott Erwitt's photographs. With a blend of compassion, wit and laser-sharp instinct, he immortalised Marilyn Monroe's now-signature billowing skirt, Jackie Kennedy Onassis's expression of despondency at her husband's funeral, Richard Nixon's assertive face-off with Nikita Khrushchev during their famous 1959 encounter, and countless shots of people in the throes of accidentally humorous moments. In 2011, The Macallan commissioned Erwitt, 85, to take photographs throughout Scotland for the fourth and latest edition of its Masters of Photography series, which is being released this fall. As with editions before him by luminaries like Annie Leibovitz and Albert Watson, each of Erwitt's photographs was paired with a single cask whisky from The Macallan.

To be specific: whiskey maker Bob Dalgarno spent time with the 58 photos that Erwitt chose as his favourites and selected a single cask to capture each one of them. A new book features 158 of the photos from the project, dubbed "Elliott Erwitt's Great Scottish Adventure." Of Erwitt's 58 choice images and corresponding malts, only 35 of the pairings are available for sale. His images capture the nation at its most beguiling. A Scottish wedding, a distillery lab, and the dramatic landscape: castles, horses, storm clouds, fishermen carrying in the daily catch, are just a few of his focuses. And there's a skinny dipper tossed in for good measure. Erwitt is a soft spoken man of few words and lots of humility. He wastes no time displaying his dry wit. When we reached him at his New York studio we asked "How are you?" "Let me check," he retorted. Then he took time to talk to us about single malts, shooting in analogue, and Marilyn's magic.

Q: Congratulations on such a magnificent project. And the Masters of Photography series is a most intriguing concept, to say the least. I think the first thing many would like to know is: what was your initial reaction to the project? What is it like when someone tells you that the photographs you take will ultimately be translated, per se, into Scotch whisky?

A: My mind was completely blank. I had no notion of what to expect. It was just a matter of going to a place that is unfamiliar and seeing what happens, as Napoleon used to say. I had no preconceptions of the liquid, of the Scotch, anything. I was just going to a country and taking pictures of what seemed to be interesting.

Q: Are you a whisky lover?

A: I am now. I always like a good drink. I experienced many distilleries, and some good times in Scotland, and now I've become an addict.

Q: Do you have any Scottish connections or genes yourself?

A: Just a bit of whiskey in me, that's all for me.

Q: Over the several trips you took to Scotland, was there any place or any moment that really stands out?

A: The most appealing of all the places was Isle of Skye. It had the best weather, the best opportunities [for taking photographs]. If only I understood the language, it'd be even better.

Q: I've read a bit about you coming away from the project with a deep understanding of the "Scottish character." What exactly do you mean by that? Does the language factor in?

A: Scottish character....oh, my, that's a tough one. I think sense of humour is probably the thing, and a sense of place. Scotland is quite unique in its character. Consequently, that's something that sticks with you. There is the language, for one thing. They have their own language—apart from the accent. They have their own way of expressing themselves.

Q: You're renowned for being able to capture how people—and in some of your photos, even dogs—express themselves. Is that something that can be learned as a photographer? Or is it really a matter of instinct?

A: It's just a matter of seeing things, and putting them in a balanced, interesting photograph. You have to let the subject inspire the picture. There's no rule. There's no great mystery. You just see something, take a picture, and hope it's good. I mean, there's some rules of composition and craft involved, obviously, but that's like the alphabet.

Q: Many of your photos are images most people in the western world can recognise. Can you talk a bit about what it's like to know that you've created an image that becomes something familiar to generations of people, something iconic?

A: I don't think in such lofty terms. I take pictures. Some are good, some are not so good. Some take on a life of their own, and that's nice. It's nice to look back on them and to know that you've taken pictures that endure. The ones that do surface are the ones that I think are worthy of the sacrifice of trees. Of course, you don't start out by shooting icons. Dealing with famous people is a pretty sure way of getting your pictures out. Pictures of ordinary people are not that interesting to general public. Most of the appeal is the celebrity of the person, rather than the photograph. It's quite nice when photographs that are not of famous people survive. It means the result more interesting than subject.

Q: Speaking of enduring, you've worked through the advent of digital, but you still work in analogue. All the photos in the Scotland series were shot on film. What keeps you faithful to that medium?

A: I'm still a dinosaur. I'm more familiar with it and I can manage it better. All the photographs come from my dark room, so I have total control over what I do. It's what I've been doing for years. I see no special reason to change, except maybe for convenience, but that's not good enough reason.

Q: Some say your photos of Marilyn are among the most indelible images in cultural history. Can you talk about working with her, about capturing a moment of splendour, beauty, tranquillity and cheekiness?

A: She was very photogenic. It's difficult to take a bad picture of her. What makes a person photogenic? It's magic, I don't have an explanation. Some famous people don't look good and ordinary people look very good. It's the way the face is structured, I suppose, the way light falls on it. Personality, a little. A truly photogenic person—it's a magical attribute. She also died young, a great career move.
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