Elliot Erwitt in Kyoto

An Erwitt photo in the tokonoma of a traditional Japanese room

When I was last in Kyoto (in November), Kahitsukan Kyoto Museum of Contemporary Art happened to have an Eliott Erwitt show on. I felt somewhat fortunate that the visitors we were touring around felt a bit tired after a morning of temple viewing and wanted to return to the hotel to relax for the rest of the afternoon because, of course, this gave us the opportunity to spend a quiet hour in the very small and quiet Kahitsukan looking at some classic Erwitt photos.

The photo above (of Erwitt’s 1955 Empire State Building) mounted on a traditional Japanese scroll and hung in the tokonoma of a Japanese room was a very pleasant surprise on the top floor of the museum: it was the only piece in the room and it was a very striking presentation.

If you’re not familiar with Erwitt’s work, a quick Google Images search will bring up a number of classic “decisive moment” photos you’ve probably seen at some point in your life: Elliott Erwitt on Google Images.

In addition to the photos on display, a companion book was available:

One fascinating detail from the book’s forward (by Yoshitomo Kajikawa, the Director of Kahitsukan) is this:

With the help of Marc Riboud, who had an exhibition at Kahitsukan in 2005, I conveyed to Erwitt my desire to have his work in our collection. He readily agreed to my proposal and showed true happiness to have his work included with other major photographers of the world. Later, I heard from him that his father had been ordained a Buddhist priest at Nishihonganji temple in Kyoto. His ashes are enshrined there. I felt that there has been some invisible bond between us. It seems that Erwitt, too, feels a deep significance in having many of his works placed in Kyoto, where his father’s ashes are.

This was just outside the entrance of the museum: he glanced inside but kept on walking; a lost opportunity…

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