Category Archives: 12 The language of photography

Exercise: The Language of Photography – Elliott Erwitt

For this exercise we are asked to look at Elliott Erwitt’s photograph above and answer some questions.

© Elliott Erwitt/Magnum Photos. USA. New York. 1974
© Elliott Erwitt/Magnum Photos. USA. New York. 1974

Write some notes about how the subject matter is placed within the frame

The subject matter is placed on the rule of thirds. Reading the image from left to right, the first leg is on the first vertical rule, the first booted leg on the middle rule and the tiny dog is on the third rule.  If we look at the image from bottom to top, we can see that the cobbled stones in the foreground are in the first horizontal rule of thirds, the subject matter fills the middle horizontal rule and the background and top part of the subject matter make up the top rule of thirds.

How has Erwitt structured this image?

Erwitt has made a very conscious crop by excluding the body and features of the dog’s handler and the first dog. This crop is what lends humour to the image. His point of view is also extremely low, almost at eye level with the Chihuahua. By placing his focus midway in the image,  the background is thrown out of focus, and this gives depth to the photograph by creating a visual separation of the main subjects.

What do you think the image is ‘saying’?

The way the dog’s owner and the Chihuahua are dressed conveys to us that it is a cold winter’s day.  The background has sufficient detail to convey to the reader that the dogs and owner are walking in a park. At first glance one does not realise that the legs on the left belong to a dog, as the placement of the legs replicate those of its owner. That realisation only hits one after the eye has made contact with the Chihuahua.

One is immediately drawn to its face with the slightly bulging eyes. The little dog is sheepishly avoiding eye contact as if to say “please don’t look at me, I know I look ridiculous” or something along those lines. The Chihuahua is dressed in a knitted coat with a big tassled bow under his chin. He is also wearing a knitted tam o’shanter on his head. His very dress reflects back on his owner. His owner might be rather obsessive in dressing this little dog in outfits as many miniature dog owners are, treating the animals as accessories instead of as pets.  His other canine companion looks as if it could be a Great Dane and I would hazard a guess that the big dog is not dressed in similar fashion.

The dogs’ owner and the Great Dane are standing close to each other and are actually touching, signifying solidarity. The little dog is dwarfed by both his companions, and is standing slightly apart from them. This little dog could well be a metaphor for the downtrodden. In actual fact, he is so small that he is in danger of literally being trodden upon. Although he is well dressed, he is a bit of a patsy as due to his size he is in no position to object to the way his owner is dressing him. Larger dogs seem less tolerant of such idiosyncrasies. The Chihuahua is the victim of being a fashion accessory.

How does the structure contribute to this meaning?

I  find the image to be quite humourous and slightly ambiguous.  The ambiguity arises initially in the confusion caused in identifying the first set of legs as mentioned above. Reading the image from left to right in a typical Z format works extremely well with this image and the eye flows naturally along this path. The Chihuahua’s lead serves as a visual arrow directing our glance straight down to the dog, where we halt and inspect him. Ironically, the smallest thing in the frame has become the most important object in the image,  thereby achieving some sort of victory.

Reference List

Erwitt, Elliott (1974). USA, New York 1974 [online]. Magnum Photos. Available from: [Accessed 16 December, 2015]