‘Silence Sounds Good’ showcases the all-too-mysterious brilliance of Elliott Erwitt

By Samuel Aftel

JR walks audiences through his creative process of creating a San Francisco mural in the companion short “One Thousand Stories”
Image by Tasha Van Zandt

I would venture to say that countless Americans – perhaps a majority of them – have seen the images of Magnum photographer Elliott Erwitt in one context or another without even knowing the man behind the camera.

Erwitt has photographed American presidents, popes, Marilyn Monroe, Fidel Castro, segregated spaces of the Jim Crow South, couples in love, dogs, everyday human interaction, his first wife, and so much more. He occupies a rare space in American culture: at once artistically omnipresent and, as an individual, relatively invisible – taking refuge behind the camera as he portrays the disorienting peculiarity, and simplicity, of the human (and canine) experience.

A new documentary, “Silence Sounds Good” (directed and narrated by Erwitt’s close confidant and companion Adriana Lopez Sanfeliu), explores the photographer’s life as he endures his eighth decade, and screens via Laemmle’s online virtual cinema platform (laemmle.com) through Friday, July 17. It is likely one of the more intimate examinations of Erwitt’s life and work to date.

For anyone interested in a succinct look into Erwitt’s psychology and quotidian disposition, the film gets the job done. At times, though, “Silence Sounds Good,” for all its compelling revelations about the photographer’s life and exquisite cinematic form, disappointingly lives up to its title – remaining quiet on the interior workings of the photographer and discursively bypassing his works’ broader socio-historical context.

To be sure, there are numerous attention-grabbing flashes of historical awareness. In one moment, Erwitt discusses his photograph of a segregated water-fountain system in Jim Crow-era North Carolina, lamenting the horrors of the America of his younger years. In another interesting moment, Erwitt reflects on his photograph of a young Black boy, in 1950s America, inexplicably smiling as he holds a handgun to his right temple – an aesthetic paradox Erwitt himself seems perplexed and compelled by.

Yet, at other moments, the film seems hesitant to motivate Erwitt – and, by extension, the audience – to more deeply contextualize his work. Indeed, in one representative exchange between Erwitt and Sanfeliu (who also serves as interviewer), Erwitt resists answering a question about what makes a photograph “magical.” And in another exchange, Erwitt makes clear that “I hate to give explanations.”

The result of this reticence, in these exchanges and beyond, is a documentary that incisively illuminates its subject’s mysteriousness, and not much else. However, it would be a mistake to underestimate the revelatory import of Erwitt’s silence and emotional withholding, and the documentary proves sufficiently fascinating for simply maintaining Elliott’s veil. But the film, consciously or not, still left me frustratingly wanting.

Near the beginning, for example, Erwitt contemplates the abbreviated life of Marilyn Monroe, who he photographed before the superstar actress tragically died of a (possibly suicidally motivated) drug overdose at the age of 36 in August 1962. Erwitt points out that if Monroe was still alive, she’d be profoundly old – an inevitability which seems to disorient him. The film also features one of Erwitt’s photographs of Monroe in a seductive pose, tossing back her head. And yet, the horrific nature of the actress’s premature death goes essentially unacknowledged in the film; it would have been genuinely captivating if Erwitt considered why she was denied a long life, and then situated his strange, beguiling portraits of Monroe within the broader culture of infatuation that may have motivated her self-destruction.

This pattern of decontextualization appears at other moments in the film, too.

A significant portion of the documentary indulges Erwitt’s long-standing artistic interest in Cuban society and Cuban people, who he describes as both “needy” and kindhearted. Erwitt took stunning photos of the late Cuban leader Fidel Castro socializing, conversing, smoking, and pensively lost in thought, and the film displays some of them as evidence of Erwitt’s proximity to uber-important men. Similarly, part of the documentary captures Erwitt’s recent travels to Cuba, where he takes pictures of everyday Cubans, compensating for his past focus on the Cuban ruling class.

While “Silence Sounds Good” demonstrates the impoverishment of Cuban life, it fails to position Erwitt’s photography in a broader socioeconomic, political, and macro-historical context. The film briefly flashes photos of Castro and shines a light on rural life on the island, but it essentially lets Castro, as well as U.S. imperialists and privileged Westerners who romanticize the hardships of working-class Cubans, off the hook.

Erwitt is never asked to reckon with the ethical consequences of portraying Castro in benign stances – warmheartedly greeting children, for example. Without the vital consideration of the well-documented authoritarian cruelty of the Castro regime – its suppression of speech, incarceration of political dissidents, terrorization of queer Cubans – or, say, the role of American imperialism in further brutalizing and impoverishing Cuba, the documentary’s presentation of Erwitt’s grand photography of Castro and everyday Cubans feels context-deficient, if not simplistically utopian.

Given their lack of contextualization in the documentary, it would be all too easy for an untutored audience to glance at Erwitt’s Castro photographs and see a benevolent, one-with-the-people leader, rather than an objectively draconian dictator. Likewise, it would be all too easy for this same audience to regard Erwitt’s capturing of Cuban civilians tending to their pastoral land as evidence of an ecologically paradisiacal Cuba.

In reality, of course, Erwitt’s photography is a multilayered reflection of revolutionary authoritarianism and inequitable economic dispossession rooted in both failed domestic policy and international capitalistic exploitation and deprivation; unfortunately, this complexity is often lost in the documentary.

Interestingly enough, one of the most engaging elements of the project is the opening short – a prologue of sorts – to the documentary about Erwitt. The short, “One Thousand Stories,” examines the creation of a mural of San Franciscans by the multifaceted street artist JR. Through the construction of the mural, JR seeks to showcase the diversity and beauty of an ever-dynamic modern American city. The mural, therefore, is soaked in a commitment to drawing a full sociopolitical picture: the expansiveness of San Francisco’s city life and its urbanites.

JR’s mural subjects include the homeless, babies, cops, boys and girls, men and women, California Governor Gavin Newsom, Black people, white people, Latinx people, Asian people, boxers, tattoo artists, dancers, athletes, and so on. The result is a wonderfully fragmented collage of individuals within an inseparable urban collective.

In comparing JR’s gregarious rapport with his subjects to Erwitt’s more introverted relationship with the camera, I may be asking too much of Erwitt and “Silence Sounds Good” based on personality alone: perhaps Erwitt is just a near-impossible subject to document with precision, given his instinctually withholding nature. Perhaps, too, Erwitt’s brilliance necessitates ideological and emotional impenetrability.

In one telling moment, Sanfeliu observes, “In a way, what we’re doing is helping Elliott share his voice, but it’s not so easy. He’s always been happy to let the work speak for itself.” Erwitt himself even muses on the interestingness of “an interview where nobody speaks.”

“It sounds like something Andy Warhol might have done,” he says.

Nevertheless, I suspect Erwitt has deep-seated political and intellectual commitments, and I wish “Silence Sounds Good” dug deeper into its subject to find out what they might be.