Having read so much about legendary photographer Joel Meyerowitz and his beginnings capturing the mean streets of 1960s New York, I am unprepared for the person I eventually hear down a phone line from Italy. I’m expecting to hear a voice with hard edges cut with a sharp tongue; instead I’m met with a languid, calm voice and an apology for having missed my first call.
About to turn 80 years old, Meyerowitz may have once been that Bronx-born tough cookie but he’s mellowed with maturity — or with the peace that evidently comes with a late-life relocation to Tuscany to enjoy an enviable existence amid the dusky Italian countryside. Either way, he could spin a yarn that I’d defy anyone to get caught up in.
His landmark birthday marks the release of a book he’s referring to as his autobiography. Joel Meyerowitz: Where I Find Myself is an all-encompassing retrospective look at his career in photography. Notably it is written in reverse chronological order, starting – as the title indicates – where his work is now and going backwards to his early days shooting now-iconic, serendipitous moments on his native city’s streets. “At my age now, it’s a period of life where you start to look at the arc of the work, and see what’s in it,” he says, describing a process that seems simultaneously nostalgic and pragmatic. “In a way, retrospectives are built to show the best pictures you ever made, and I thought, that isn’t what I want to do at this point. I wanted to explore how it was that photography revealed myself to me.”
While others describe Meyerowitz as a pioneer of colour photography, at a time when “serious” art photography was all black and white, he merely describes himself as a “servant of the medium”. He started out as an art director in advertising, until one fateful campaign saw him quit immediately to become a photographer. He was designing a booklet featuring photos by Robert Frank, and seeing Frank at work discovered that “photographs could be made while both the photographer and subject were in motion” and set out on the streets of New York, camera in hand. His contemporaries included the likes of Diane Arbus and Garry Winogrand, and his early works remain relevant, captivating and influential even now, 50 years on.
“I learned to trust that the world itself is much more inventive and imaginative than I am”
“What drew me to photography was the mystery of it, the fact that it would reveal moments that happened in front of me, that I connected to,” Joel Meyerowitz tells me. “That engagement and response for a lifetime actually has defined who I am. So the book takes that perspective, looking at the different phases in my life and work, and threading a needle through them, or lots of needles, one after the other. It’s different when you start out, you don’t know where you’re going to go, but when you look back things fall into place. And things blend from one thing to the next. It’s not like I come to the end of something and then wonder what’s next. While I’m deeply involved in one phase, a fresh idea grows out of it, and suddenly that new idea becomes enchanting, suggesting that all this work I’ve done has brought me to this transitional moment.”
Both Meyerowitz’s persona and work are porous to the photographer’s surroundings: a likely by-product of his investment in street photography. His latest work, for example, is as serene as the man himself, documenting the ochre and gold tones of the Tuscan landscape, standing in bold contrast to the concrete urban scenes of his earlier series. “I’m glad I had that early passion for the street and seeing what was happening in front of me, paying attention to ordinary life and finding brief moments of perception. In a way I learned to trust that the world itself is much more inventive and imaginative than I am. By trusting that, I built an understanding for myself that this is the way I work, and this is what photography offers. Because it all happens so quickly – it’s the press of a button at the thousandth of a second, life just appears and disappears. It’s about accepting that ambient influence, and softening one’s reactions.”
Early in his career, this mindset led Meyerowitz to catch charming and utterly unique incidental moments on city streets, discovering memorable characters and exposing their unusual dynamics and interactions. These shots are now also fascinating examinations of late 60s and early 70s style and culture, presenting a world of fashion and advertising frozen in time. At the time, Joel says the move to colour photography was intended as such: a visual report of the scenery around him, and that “colour had more descriptive power than black and white”. As his street photography evolved in the following years, he stood back and surveyed a wider scene, where there was no longer one focal point but several to discover. In these works, he wanted to make every detail is as important as the one next to it, and in turn created images that a viewer could explore endlessly.
Also featured in the book is a series of portraits of his wife Maggie Barrett, a novelist and playwright, which appear startlingly disparate from his best known work and which Meyerowitz describes as a risky inclusion. “I think a lot of photographers would hesitate to put in pictures that are so personal and emotional, we don’t always consider them as art,” he says. When it came down to threading together the major influences on his life and work, their 25 years together had to play an important part. These images range from structured portraits to highly intimate moments that offer views through the eyes of a partner. I note that these are distinctly opposite to his observational photographs, often taken as an opportunistic bystander, and he agrees. “It’s true, the photographer is often solitary and separate. Using a camera has always felt cool to me, somewhat dispassionate, and while I maintain that stance as the observer it doesn’t mean I’m not also inspired and heated up by the things I see. Photography is also a profession that practices a kind-of humanism. You see so often photographers who are willing to go where there are disasters, wars, tragedies, and they do it because of compassion, not only to make a living. So they’re often in opposition, the coolness of the machine and the spirituality of the individual.”
“The greatest disaster that ever happened on the mainland of America and this asshole is saying no pictures?”
Though he never saw himself as this brand of reportage photographer, a war zone in his home city brought out a new side to Meyerowitz’s work he didn’t see coming. On the day the Twin Towers were destroyed in the 9/11 attacks, he describes how he felt drawn to the catastrophic epicentre to depict it and tell the story of the aftermath. “Because I’m a native New Yorker, the blow was so great and deep. You feel compassion for your city, and the people who live there with you. I wanted to do something, but what to do?” When attempting to get close to the site, a police officer tried to stop Joel from taking photographs, and it’s while recounting this event that his voice suddenly forms the edges of a true New York accent. “I was out on the street outside Ground Zero, and she smacked me on the shoulder and said ‘hey buddy, no photographs allowed, this is a crime scene’. It was such a ridiculous statement that I started to argue with her. ‘What are you talking about, the disaster is in there, the crime scene is in there. I can take pictures out here, you can’t tell me no!’” He discovered that mayor Giuliani had banned photography, and became enraged. “The greatest disaster that ever happened on the mainland of America and this asshole is saying no pictures? It just got me so angry that I thought, fuck him, I’m going to get in there and make those pictures. I changed and I became this other person. I became politicised in one moment.”
“Taking a picture is very different from making a photograph”
The resulting photographs are both immense and intricate, surveying the scenes of vast devastation, many, surreally, against the backdrop of the New York skyline we are so accustomed to seeing. Each vast scene is brimming with textural detail of buildings blown apart, their innards visceral, and on such a scale that brings home the enormity of the ruin.
On channeling his fervent response through an artistic output, Meyerowitz chose to make a statement, something he’s now seeing in the global women’s movement ignited by the Harvey Weinstein revelations. “There are photographers doing incredible work [about the women’s movement] and there should be. As a creative person you’re a part of it, you’re not apart from it.” He talks about his recent foray into teaching, and how the photography world has changed beyond recognition with the advent of the smartphone. With billions of people now in possession of a high spec camera, he sees it as part of his mission to break the visual tropes that the smartphone produces and help fledgling photographers to channel their voice through their images. “Everybody takes a picture, but taking a picture is very different from making a photograph,” he explains. “A photograph is something that has an idea, that you give shape to, whereas a picture has no consciousness.”
Every once in a while, he comes across a young photographer with what he calls “social intelligence”, creating “beautiful, poetic” images that show an understanding of the world they live in. “There are photographers in America who I’ve been encouraging to look at the Trumpian universe and the way it’s challenging American principles. There are ways to approach these things that are socially conscious.” One of Meyerowitz’s most lauded series was for the Guggenheim Fellowship, photographing US society during the Vietnam War. He comments that, although much of his work hasn’t been overtly political, his hand was on the pulse of culture and his photographs were an outlet for that. “You want to be relevant, you don’t just want to make beautiful pictures. I think it’s important that photographers go and look at the environment they’re in, and see what they can say about it.”
Joel Meyerowitz: Where I Find Myself is published by Laurence King.