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Rangefinder Magazine
January 2006

Profile: Marty Elkort by Larry Brownstein
One-time Photo League Member and Still an Emerging Photographer

If you have the mindset of a student rather than an expert, it’s easier for you to assimilate new impressions.” The words of a 25-year-old photographer just starting out? No, rather the words of 76-year-old Marty Elkort, one-time member of The Photo League, a prestigious group of photographers in New York City that included Paul Strand, Aaron Siskind, Imogen Cunningham, Weegee and other shining lights among its ranks. Though the years have slowed him down a bit, he still loves street photography, “I’m happy as a clam in a mud bank when I’m out taking pictures. There’s little in the world that gives me the same pleasure as exploring the visual environment with my camera. The more hectic, the more cluttered, the more crowded the environment, the happier I am,” says Elkort.

Barber's Chair
“Barber’s Chair,” Gouldsboro, Maine, ca. 1947

Elkort sold his first picture as a 10-year-old in 1940. He and his family were on a trip. They were in the car when they were caught in a huge downpour. “I took the family camera, a Kodak Brownie, the one with a bellows and a prism viewfinder, and took some pictures of cars stuck in the downpour and people up to their knees in water on the streets,” Elkort says. “I told my father to drive to the nearest newspaper office, convinced I had ‘a scoop.’ He took me to the Baltimore Sun, where the city editor had the roll developed. The next day one of my pictures ran on the front page with my byline, and I got a check for $5 in the mail shortly thereafter. I was hooked.”

Soda Fountain Girl
“Soda Fountain Girl,” Coney Island Boardwalk, ca. 1951


When Elkort was 15 years old, he spent four months in the hospital recovering from polio. When he left the hospital, his parents wanted to celebrate his recovery and asked him what he might like as a get-well present. Elkort felt a need to explore the world after so many months in the hospital, so he asked his parents for a camera. He was given a Ciroflex, a twin-lens reflex camera, that cost his father $60—about a week’s salary. Elkort says, “I took to it like a fish to water and set out around Manhattan taking pictures of things that interested me.”

We discussed how the experience of having polio may have influenced his photography. In answer, he paraphrased Kahlil Gibran: “Before it can hold the wine, the cup must first be burned in the oven of the kiln.” He elaborated about how the experience of having polio may have affected him: “As a kid, I liked to read books, go fishing, collect stamps and so forth. I was not good at athletics. Polio reinforced that by eliminating most competitive sports from my life due to my paralyzed left arm. Polio also made me grow up in some ways. In the hospital I saw some of my friends die before my eyes and get carried out of the ward with a sheet over them. The physical pain was unbearable, at least for the first two weeks. The whole experience was sort of like being struck by lightning. You are never the same afterward.”

The Drum Major
“The Drum Major,” Columbus Day Parade, New York City, ca. 1950

He quickly mastered stealth photography, relying on the unusual design of the twin-lens reflex to make himself invisible. He would walk the streets, peering down into the 2x2-inch groundglass of the camera, composing and taking pictures without looking up. “I developed the skill of walking right up to a person and taking his or her picture, and most of them didn’t even realize it,” says Elkort.

Before long he graduated to a more refined twin-lens reflex camera—the Rolleiflex. Elkort recalls it cost the considerable sum of $150. Before long he found his way to the The Photo League, and his association with photographers there helped him to refine his sense of what he was doing and why.

Blind Musician
“Blind Musician,” Lower East Side, New York City, ca. 1950

The Museum of Modern Art had a special student entrance fee of 25 cents on Saturdays, and Elkort often availed himself of this opportunity to study the masters and develop as an artist. He went to The Cooper Union college in downtown Manhattan because of its strong arts program. He began with the idea of being a painter but soon realized that photography was his real passion.Upon graduation he worked for a New York photographer but found the world of commercial photography not to his liking. After he married, he realized he would have to do other things to support a family. He and his wife, Edythe, moved to New Mexico where Elkort became the art critic for The New Mexican newspaper and a staffer for New Mexico magazine. It was a time he enjoyed greatly. He also spent time in Alaska and back in New York working in the travel industry. All along he continued taking pictures. He retired 10 years ago and once again has the pleasure of being able to concentrate on his photography.

Italian Bakery Window
“Italian Bakery Window,” Lower East Side, New York City, ca. 1950

“The proper study of mankind is man,” says Elkort, attributing the quote to the English poet Alexander Pope. And he has indeed made a photographic study of his fellow humans. I was given a viewing of his archive of photos that go back to the 1940s—a family of musicians playing in the street on the Lower East Side, a gypsy woman, a young girl playing in an alley, a young girl’s excitement at encountering a cat, a horn player in the Columbus Day Parade. These candid photos show revealing moments of joy, celebration and human dignity. Perhaps they reflect the post-Depression era. There was peace in the world, and people enjoyed their lives. I believe the photos also reveal the photographer’s affection for his fellow humans. There are few dark photos here—Elkort is a man who thinks that his fellow man is basically good.

Perhaps this explains the current demand for his work. Elkort believes that nostalgia for the simpler, more pleasant time is partly responsible for the new interest in his work. Not only does it depict a friendlier Manhattan of the 1940s and ’50s, but Elkort’s subject matter, style and disposition seem perfectly matched to the nostalgic feeling.

Puppy Love
“Puppy Love,” Coney Island, New York City, ca. 1951

Though current interest in his work seems to stem from the historical nature of the photos, it was in 1952 that Elkort first received serious validation of his work from Edward Steichen, who was at the time the curator for photography of the New York Museum of Modern Art.

Elkort recalls, “I first went to see him around 1948. I was 19 and in college at Cooper Union. My friends admired my pictures, and I screwed up my courage and called the museum. It was very easy to get to see him, not as complicated as it would be today. His secretary said I could come in the following week with my pictures, which I did. I remember his words when he reviewed my pictures. He said there were 35 million amateur photographers in this country, and he didn’t see anything in my pictures that would separate me from the other 35 million. After the initial disappointment, I waited two more years until I called again for an appointment.

Wholesale Only
“Wholesale Only,” Lower Manhattan (now called SoHo), New York City, ca. 1948

This time he bought three pictures for the collection of the museum. At that time, Steichen was perhaps the most famous photographer in the country. As he looked at my photographs he started chuckling to himself. I asked him what was so funny. He said my pictures made him feel good and that he was sick and tired of looking at pictures of garbage cans, people lying in alleys, etc. On both occasions, Steichen was very nice and polite, and I found myself liking him, even at the first meeting when he turned me down. I asked him, at the second meeting, if he remembered me. He did. I reminded him that he rejected my pictures at the time but now, at the second meeting, he bought three of them. ‘Obviously, you’ve grown,’ was his answer.”


The three pictures that Steichen selected are good examples of Elkort’s insightful yet lighthearted eye. “Soda Fountain Girl” (on page 18), an image from Coney Island, depicts a young girl sitting on a barstool, with her dress riding up a little too high as she leans forward on the counter. “Puppy Love” (on page 20) also taken at Coney Island, captures the amusing but awkward body language of a teen girl and boy. (Could it be a first date?) “The Black Cat” depicts a contented cat, rubbing up against a kneeling young girl, while another girl in a stroller watches with keen interest.

“Entertainment,” Coney Island Boardwalk, ca. 1948

Steichen purchased three of his prints for $5 each. While the sum was meager, even by the standards of the day, it nonetheless encouraged Elkort and gave him confidence in his vision. Now Elkort is also in the collection of the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. His work is also represented by Artseal Gallery in San Francisco, John Cleary Gallery in Houston and Peter Fetterman Gallery in Santa Monica, CA.

Elkort has lived in Los Angeles for 40 years and still enjoys his street photography. He says, “In some ways it is more difficult to take pictures for me today, and in others, easier. At my age I tire easily, so I don’t last as long on a photo shoot as when I was younger and more energetic. Each picture is a new experience, a new challenge. This is what makes photography so exciting. You never know when the next opportunity will present itself and you must be alert at all times. I have learned to trust my impulses. Sometimes (most of the time) I sort of let the camera take the picture, almost by remote control. My subconscious mind is doing the thinking for me, and I trust it implicitly. It never lets me down. There is always the tingle of creation at the time of snapping the shutter. As someone once said, ‘good luck is when preparation meets opportunity,’ and that is sort of a golden rule for me in street photography.

Photos While-U-Wait
“Photos While-U-Wait,” Coney Island Boardwalk, New York City, ca. 1948

“What I love the most is that I never have the same experience twice. Each foray into the field is a new adventure. It keeps the mind young and the approach fresh. I suppose you could call it creativity, but it is deeply satisfying each and every time. I just love it. Taking pictures in the streets is where I know what I am doing at any given moment; I am in full charge of my mind and spirit, and my camera responds with a picture—hopefully a good one.”

These days he stalks the streets of Los Angeles with his digital SLR or a Fujifilm 645 Zi—a medium-format, auto-focus zoom camera. “I love the new automated cameras. They leave me free to just snap the shutter and not have to worry about exposure, focus, etc. This is a tremendous advantage when taking photographs on the fly. I can concentrate 100% on the aesthetics of the situation and not worry about the technology. Photography is always fun for me. But the new equipment makes it even more enjoyable and, yes, more fun.”

“Saturday Morning,” Third Avenue El, ca. 1947

He showed me some of his current work, and at once I could see the joy of his subjects and the joy Elkort must have experienced in taking the photos. And what a joy for me it was to spend time with this 76-year-old emerging photographer.




Larry Brownstein is author and photographer of Los Angeles: Where Anything Is Possible, an inspirational look at life, culture and architecture in L..A. He is represented by Getty Images, California Stock and other photo agencies. His work includes travel, landscape, portraiture and wedding photography. His web site is www.larrybrownstein.com. He can be reached at (310) 815-1402, larryb@ larrybrownstein.com.

Copyright © 2012 Rangefinder Publishing, Inc. All rights reserved.