The Kitchen Sink Debate: Elliott Erwitt Captures Cold War Tensions
09th January 2022
In 1959, Elliott Erwitt travelled to Moscow on a commercial assignment for Westinghouse Refrigerators. He was tasked with photographing the commercial displays of the American National Exhibition at Sokolniki Park. Little did he know that during this trip he would take one of the most well-known and reproduced images of the mid-twentieth century.
The exhibition was devised as a means of cultural exchange between the Soviet Union and the United States, a direct result of the US-Soviet Union Cultural Agreement a year earlier. The Vice President Richard Nixon travelled to Moscow for a series of talks with Soviet First Secretary, Nikita Khrushchev. One of these meetings took place at the exhibition, with Nixon leading the Soviet Premier through the displays highlighting the quality and effieciency of products of American manufacturing. In reality, however, it was an opportunity for the two leaders to publicly debate the two diametrically opposed ideologies, Communism vs Capitalism, that they represented.
There was a frenzied atmosphere at the exhibition as a large crowd followed the pair around. By chance, Erwitt was photographing the installation of a Macy’s kitchen display at just the moment when the exchange between Nixon and Khrushchev became most heated. Always travelling with his personal camera, alongside with that for commercial use, Erwitt began photographing what played out in front of him. Nixon became particularly animated as he described the benefits of a ‘typical American kitchen’, deemed affordable to every citizen, to Khrushchev, jabbing a pointed figure into Khrushchev’s chest. Khrushchev in return looks perplexed and slightly amused, unimpressed by America’s so-called progressiveness.
After the incident, Erwitt was sought out by William Safire, then the PR agent representing Macy’s at the exhibition, who was looking to trace Erwitt’s image. Later becoming attached to Nixon’s presidential campaign, Safire encouraged the use of the image on Nixon’s 1960 election poster. The image proved effective in elevating Nixon’s status as a dynamic operator, though not effective enough to win him the presidency. Yet, it did become symbolic in America as a sign of the nation standing up to the Soviet Union in the increasingly frosty relations of the Cold War era. By contrast, Soviet audiences viewed the photograph as a visualisation of American aggression and the perceived threat to Communism. Erwitt’s photograph has become an enduring symbol of Cold War tensions.
The ArtistKnown for his satirical humour and sharp wit, Elliott Erwitt (born 1928) rose to fame after he was invited to join Magnum Photos by founding member Robert Capa in the 1950s. He has since become one of the world’s most successful and influential photographers, having produced over twenty retrospective photography books and been honoured by numerous solo shows at establishments such as the Smithsonian, the Museum of Modern Art and the Art Institute of Chicago.Artist Page