Kitchen Debate | Elliott Erwitt


I have previously written about the Kitchen Debate, an iconic moment in both television and photographic history. In documentary Contacts, Elliott Erwitt, the photographer of the most famous image of the Kitchen Debate remembers how events unfolded.

The time is 1959. The scene is the American Industrial Fair in Moscow. The characters are the vice president of United States who plans to run for president and the chief of the Soviet Union Nikita Khrushchev. The situation is massive crowds and bedlam as two politicians will from exhibit to exhibit, Nixon boasting about American accomplishments and Khrushchev fielding the gibes and then joining into the asinine argument.

By sheer luck, I guessed correctly where they would turn up next: which was at a display of a modern kitchen behind a barrier. I rushed to it to have an unobstructed view as they approached the rail. Luck was with me. With a direct view and no one to  push and shove, I circumnavigated Nixon and Khrushchev, finding my best range. From then on, it was like shooting fish in a barrel.

But how pictures can lie. The illusion is one of Nixon standing up to the Soviets, where the reality is an argument about cabbage soup versus red meat.

de Gaulle in USSR

1966 was an extraordinarily busy year for Charles de Gaulle. Re-elected the previous year, le Grand Charles had envisioned a France acting as a balancing force in the dangerous rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union. He moved away from the Atlantean foreign policy into more neutral waters by withdrawing the French commitments from NATO and demanding all foreign bases removed from French soil. In January, he scored a victory in Empty Chair Crisis, thus permanently killing off European Federalism.

In July, De Gaulle made an 11-day, 6,200 mile trip across Russia, during which he attended a Soviet satellite missile launch at Baikinour. On the other hand, he rebuffed the Soviet demands to recognize the co-existence “of the two German states”. Devoutly Catholic, he insisted on attending mass in Leningrad, and he ended his visit with a joint call for an end to foreign intervention in Vietnam, a proclamation he would echo in a famous Phnom Penh speech two months later. Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin reciprocated the visit with a grand 9-day visit to France.

De Gaulle capped the year of diplomatic frenzy with an emotional, yet controversial state visit to Poland. The first non-Communist European leader to visit Poland since the Second World War, the president who actually had led the Poles against the Soviets after the First World War was enthusiastically received. There were hails of Duzy Karolek (Long Charlie) from the youth who wore copies of the képi military cap he wore during the war. (To this day the cap is known in Poland as Degolówka). But de Gaulle angered the West Germans by visiting the once-German town of Hindenburg, which had become Zabrze, and said it was la ville la plus polonaise de la Pologne (the most Polish town in Poland).

Elliot Erwitt was the only American photographer covering de Gaulle’s visit. His photo of the General and the Soviet Presidium in the most casual of settings indeed made the cover of Paris Match and was published worldwide. He remembered the curious affair:

“I was there at the French Embassy with all the other dozens of photographers taking the usual handshaking pictures and when it was all over I went back to my hotel and took my shoes off and suddenly thought I should not have left. So I put my shoes on again and went back to the Embassy. There were only a few people still there, the event was over, so I just walked in and opened a few doors and then opened one door and there was the entire Soviet government sitting down with de Gaulle and chatting. Nobody looked up so I just walked in with my camera and started taking pictures. They didn’t question my presence because I acted natural. Noboday said anything and after a while I got up and left. It is very important to know when to leave. No one took any notice. I went back to my hotel and called Paris Match, who could hardly believe it. They broke their cover waiting for my pictures.”

At Capote’s Ball


Truman Capote’s legendary masked ball, at New York City’s Plaza Hotel on November 28, 1966, was a hyped-up media event meticulously masterminded by the self-promoting, social-climbing author of In Cold Blood. [From the moment that he styled himself as a male nymphet for his first novel’s jacket photo, Capote had shown a rare talent for self-promotion]. Capote dangled the prized invitations for months, snubbing early supporters like close friend and fellow writer Carson McCullers as he determined who was “in” and who was “out.” In choosing his guest of honor, Capote eschewed his carefully cultivated society friends, the flock of wealthy, elegant, ultra-fashionable society matrons whom Capote called his “swans” (Babe Paley, C. Z. Guest, Slim Keith, Gloria Guinness, and Marella Agnelli) in favor of “dowdy” Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham.

The eventual guest list to so-called Party of the Century tallied 540, and included names like (newlyweds) Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow, literary lions Norman Mailer and William F. Buckley, and various international crowned heads, Kennedys, Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, and Whitneys. Halston and Adolfo. designed  the elaborate masks and headdresses. Wanting to keep the party mix interesting and unpredictable, Capote also invited people from the town where the murders from In Cold Blood occurred, publishing types, and even the doorman from the U.N. Plaza, his apartment building, who danced the night away with a woman who didn’t know his pedigree; and Norman Mailer sounded off about Vietnam. Actress Candice Bergen was bored at the ball, and the photographer Elliot Erwitt captured her above.

[The snubbed replied their own superior-than-thou message on the cover of December 1967 Esquire issue. Under the title “We wouldn’t have come even if you had invited us, Truman Capote” pictured a surly-looking group comprising Jimmy Brown, Kim Novak, Tony Curtis, Pat Brown, Ed Sullivan, Pierre Salinger, Lynn Redgrave and Casey Stengel. Inside William F. Buckley dissected the politics of the party one year on.]


The 40th anniversary of the Russian revolution


Born in Paris to Russian parents, and educated in America, Elliott Erwitt took up photography before being drafted into the US Army in 1950. He made his name with photo-essays on barracks life in France then joined Magnum and travelled the world, capturing famous faces and places and producing quirky studies of dogs.

In 1957, Erwitt was covering the 40th anniversary of the Russian revolution for the American magazine Holiday. It was when the first Sputnik was launched; his photographs of a lecture at Moscow’s planetarium appeared on the cover of the New York Times magazine. Up to that point, no western journalist had managed to get pictures of the October anniversary parade (no foreigners were allowed to take part in the parade) but Erwitt tagged along with a Soviet TV crew and managed to pass five security lines, setting up his camera right by Lenin’s mausoleum: “Although I was questioned by a guard, I was able to convince them that I belonged to the parade. I shot three or four quick rolls and then raced to my hotel room a few blocks away, where I processed them in the bath.”

Above was his picture of the Red Army’s new intercontinental ballistic missiles. He went to Moscow with the intention to cover the 7th November parade and prepared an instant developing kit for it. He raced back to the Metropol Hotel where he was staying, sent a telex to New York saying he had something special, developed the film in his room, and caught a plane to Helsinki. There, Time magazine arranged a special lab for him, from where the pictures were developed and distributed all over the world. Several magazines displayed those pictures on their cover.

Kitchen Debate

A kitchen of a suburban model house — cut in half to be viewed easily — was an unlikely place to make history, but on July 24th 1959, vice-president Richard Nixon and the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev did just that at an impromptu debate (made through interpreters) at the American National Exhibition in Moscow.

This was the first high-level meeting between Soviet and American leaders in four years. With two political heavyweights  arguing for their respective ideologies, the debate was historic yet its contents banal. Khrushchev stressed the communism’s focus on “things that matter” above luxury while Nixon extolled America’s household appliances which give the event its title, “The Kitchen Debate.” Then, Nixon started his carefully prepared speech on American abundance and Soviet drabness.

Back home, the event was denounced as a political stunt: “an exchange that emphasized the gulf between east and west but had little bearing on the substantive issue,” wrote the New York Times. However, what the American people saw was the above photo by taken by Elliott Erwitt. Erwitt captured the moment when Nixon poked his finger at Khrushchev, who didn’t have the slightest idea of what Nixon was saying. Americans assumed that Nixon had silenced the Soviet premier and “won” the debate. Nixon acquired the image of a tough forceful statesman, one which carried him all the way to the Republican presidential nomination the next year (postcards featuring the image were a campaign must-have) and eventually to the White House in 1968.