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The Macallan Masters of Photography: Elliott Erwitt Edition

A conversation with the renowned photographer on whisky and his medium

by Julie Wolfson in Culture on 05 November 2013

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The Macallan Masters of Photography projects have generated fruitful collaborations. In the first three iterations Annie Leibovitz, Albert Watson and Rankin explored the themes and culture of the famed whisky distillery with images focused on mystery, fashion and whisky-making. Now Elliot Erwitt—known as a master of capturing the decisive moment—turns his lens to document his “Great Scottish Adventure.” For this project the lens was a Leica (most often an M6) and the opening night celebration and exhibit of the images was at the new Leica Store in West Hollywood. Erwitt’s pictures of events, landscapes, private moments, people and animals tell the story of a beautiful country full of remarkable beauty, intense emotion and surprising humor.

Adding to the ambitious goals for the project, 158 of Erwitt’s photos are compiled into bespoke archival photography books that feature a 375ml handmade flask filled with never-before released whiskies from one of 58 casks. (The flasks are concealed in the back of the book in a section cut out in the shape of the custom shaped bottle.) Each box-set also includes one of 58 prints signed by Erwitt.

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During a private tasting in of five casks included in the series, Erwitt revealed his enthusiasm for the project while The Edrington Group director of malts, Ken Grier, gushed about working with the world renowned photographer. Erwitt shared thoughts about the surprising moments during the photo shoot that took him on a journey throughout Scotland, including traveling with a stuffed gorilla that made its way into some of the images.

What originally began as a 10-day shoot extended beyond the planned itinerary, including a return trip to Scotland to continue the work. Some days during the road trip, Erwitt searched for things to photograph, while other times he discovered multiple subjects at once. While we sipped, Erwitt thoughtfully looked through the book's pages and Grier explained how Macallan whisky-maker Bob Dalgarno paired the character of each whisky with a specific Erwitt image.

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“It started as a 10-day thing,” explains Erwitt. “It looked interesting, so it continued. I think if it had stopped then it would not be anywhere as interesting as it turned out. One thing leads to another to another to another. When you get interested in something you want to pursue it. It is sad to leave something half done.” When asked when he knew he had enough images—when the project was complete—Erwitt says, “If I may quote Flaubert, 'A work of art is never completed, it is merely abandoned.'” Grier asks Erwitt if he likes to be called a maverick and Erwitt responds, “It’s better to be called something than to be ignored.”

Grier describes tasting notes of a whisky chosen specifically to complement Erwitt’s image of a wedding: “You’ve got this candied apple, hard-boiled sweets, with up-front suppleness and sugar. That’s about the mother in the photo—slightly old fashioned, romantic, traditional, then you get this note of apple and greenness coming though and freshness so it is like the freshness of married life. It is a very romantic, nostalgic whisky.”

Dalgarno and Grier paired cask #4112 with Erwitt’s photo of a dozen dogs at the distillery in front of the Easter Elchies House high upon the river Spey. “There is a softness and gentleness and an oaky dryness and cheekiness like the dogs. I taste a whole variety of flavors like all of the characters of the dogs and the finish is harmonious,” says Grier. Of the image itself, and what drew him to it, Erwitt says, “Dogs are just people with more hair and they don’t ask for prints. All together they are wonderful subjects. They have anthropomorphic qualities. I remember my own dog very fondly. I see my dog in other dogs.”

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The conversation then turns to history and to Erwitt’s time in the White House—his memory of JFK’s assassination is still fresh in his mind: “The anniversary is coming up on the 22 November. I have pictures from the time I was accredited to the White House that are being asked now for various uses. Then I have a kind of important picture of his wife and brother at the funeral. So you get back into that atmosphere and it seems very recent." Erwitt says the President was as endearing and interesting in the flesh as he seemed, "He was easy to photograph. He was charming, pleasant and open. Of course he was interested in my project. I did a project on his war in the South Pacific. It became a book called "PT 109," the boat that he was captain of that was rammed by a Japanese destroyer. I followed his rescue in the Solomon Islands by natives. So when I brought the pictures to the White House, he was obviously very interested in seeing them.”

On photographing Marilyn Monroe, Erwitt says, “It was very easy for me. Some people are very photogenic. Some people look better in pictures than in life. There are no bad pictures of her that I have ever seen." Another noteworthy accomplishment of Erwitt's; the photos from Truman Capote's famous Black and White Ball in 1966—for which Erwitt was the only photographer accredited. “I was the only person allowed in with a camera. People came from all over the world for that evening and a lot of people were left out and were angry. Because the New York Times published the guest list, there was very tight security. I was on the guest list and I got calls from people afterwards asking me how the hell I got on the list.” Adding to his remarkable life journey, Erwitt left something special behind during a trip to Cuba. “In 1964 Che Guevara presented me a box of cigars, but I was too timid to bring them to the Unites States. So I gave them away. I had to get special permission from the State Department to go there. Those were my journalist days.”

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For his next project Erwitt will continue to create books: “I have been doing books every year, at least one. This year, two. My next subject is women, from youth to old age, mostly from what I have. I’ll see if there are pieces missing, then I will go out and shoot. The structure is going to be that, but you never know what is going to happen. Theoretically you can have an idea and when I gather the pictures, maybe I’ll see some other kind of theme coming out.”

While working on his “Great Scottish Adventure” for The Masters of Photography, Erwitt fell in love with Scotland, enjoying the project and the chance to taste some rare whiskies. “I plan to go back to Scotland to enjoy the country. I once stayed in a magnificent place in Inverness where you go to enjoy the countryside and eat well and drink well. I am up for something like that again. No camera, but if I see something that I want to take a picture of and I don’t have a camera, I’ll get upset.” On his incredible career and achievements, Erwitt is matter-of-fact. “It is the story of many photographers who are journalists, it’s what they do. It’s the job. I’ve had a good run you might say.”

"The Masters of Photography: Elliott Erwitt Edition" is available worldwide for $1,500. Learn more from The Macallan online.

Photos by Elliott Erwitt, aditional images courtesy of The Macallan

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