DPP Home Profiles Joel Meyerowitz: Master Of Many Colors

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Joel Meyerowitz: Master Of Many Colors

Joel Meyerowitz has been one of the leading fine-art photographers of the last 50 years. His career includes some of the most poignant photos from Ground Zero in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

This Article Features Photo Zoom

A more recent photo of a diver in Florida taken in 2007 is titled "The Elements: Air/Water Part 1, #6"
DPP: Why did you shoot in color for your early street photography when the norm then was black-and-white?

Meyerowitz: Because I didn't know any better. Sometimes when you're young and innocent, you do the most direct thing. I knew nothing about photography. I was overwhelmed by watching Robert Frank shoot a job. I was a junior art director at a small agency in New York, and I had designed a booklet for Kimberly-Clark selling products for young girls. My boss hired Frank, who I didn't know anything about, to do the black-and-white photos for it. The pictures were of two preteenage girls—they come home from school, they play with their dolls, they do their homework, they have milk and cookies. I saw the way Frank worked—the mystery, the silence, the quickness of his movements. Every time he pressed the button on his Leica, I could see a moment in front of me freezing. I was transformed. I didn't know anything about photography at the time, but the experience awakened me. When I watched him work, I saw that you could move and take pictures at the same time.

I quit my job and borrowed my boss' camera. I went out on the street and bought two rolls of color film because the world was in color and I didn't have a darkroom. I wanted to see these pictures as fast as possible, and I knew that New York had these labs that could develop slides in a couple of hours. It was the simplest and most direct way. For the first year, I shot exclusively in color and learned my chops because color is a very decisive form of photography, especially with positive film. If your exposures are wrong, they look terrible. You learn to be precise. Black-and-white is very forgiving. You can make a mistake by three stops and still get a print out of it.

DPP: You had a period in your career where you experimented with black-and-white. How did that come about?

Meyerowitz: After about a year of shooting, I was on a subway heading to the Bronx to see my parents, and sitting across from me was Garry Winogrand, so we starting talking. He was going to the Bronx to visit his parents, as well. I had seen him photographing on the streets a few times. He told me to come over to his apartment sometime to see his photographs. Soon, I did.

Paris, France, 1967
His place was an archive of tens of thousands of black-and-white prints stacked up in piles hundreds high. He just picked up a chunk of photographs and handed them to me. He said, "Here, look at these." As I was flipping through them, I realized, "You can't do this in color." You project color images up on a screen. It's virtual. You click the carousel and the next picture comes up. Nobody ever gets up close to the screen to examine some unique corner of the image, which you can do with a photograph in your hand. I immediately thought, "I like the intimacy of this." I wanted to hold hundreds of prints in my hand and riffle through them and find new connections. I saw that there was a rhythm in photography. It wasn't about making single great photographs. It was about making links of photographs, chains of photographs, runs of photographs. I bought an enlarger, made a little darkroom for myself and taught myself how to print black-and-white.

DPP: Did you hang up color for a while?

Meyerowitz: No, I started carrying two cameras, one loaded with color film and the other with black-and-white. Whenever there was a possibility, if the event or the action didn't disappear too quickly, I would make a picture in color and a picture in black-and-white of the same thing. Then I started looking at them together to try and understand, "Why color? What's the difference? What does it mean to see the world in color when you can see it in black-and-white?" In Taking My Time, there's a section called "The Question of Color," with pairs of pictures. It's surprising to people that somebody at that period was raising the question—the difference between the two media. By 1973, I was finished with black-and-white. I had a Guggenheim Fellowship and did a series called "America During Vietnam." When that was over I said, "That's it for me for black-and-white," and I've done everything only in color ever since.


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