Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Joel Meyerowitz: Master Of Many Colors

By Mark Edward Harris, Photography By Joel Meyerowitz Published in Photographer Profiles
A permanent fixture in the vital New York City scene, Joel Meyerowitz has been a leader in street reportage since the early '60s, and he was one of the first photographers to openly embrace the possibilities of color film in photojournalism. Above: New York City, 1975.
A permanent fixture in the vital New York City scene, Joel Meyerowitz has been a leader in street reportage since the early '60s, and he was one of the first photographers to openly embrace the possibilities of color film in photojournalism. Above: New York City, 1975.
This image is titled "Five more found, October 24, 2001." Meyerowitz was given unparalleled access to Ground Zero, and the images he captured would be included in his book Aftermath: World Trade Center Archive

DPP: What was the answer to the question you had raised about color versus black-and-white?

Meyerowitz: At the time, John Szarkowski was the head of the photo department at the Museum of Modern Art. One of the things John wrote in his book Looking at Photographs is that all pure photography does is describe what's in front of the camera. I took that to mean that the most descriptive film you could use would advance that idea. Color describes more things. You get all of the information described by color. There's another layer of data there. Color amplifies our sense of what reality is. It isn't an abstraction. Black-and-white is a reductive abstraction. You see a woman standing on a street corner and she's wearing a yellow raincoat and the sky is an incredible blue, and it means something to you. If you took it in black-and-white she would have a gray raincoat against a gray sky. Those distinctions are rich with possibilities. I wanted to enrich my visual vocabulary.

DPP: Would you say that to successfully shoot in color you have to be aware of how color combinations work and the subtle relationships of colors?

Meyerowitz: It's true. Also, color pictures, even though they're in color, aren't always about color. They can be about the light in the picture. One starts to be more sensitive to the potential meaning of color, its subtleties, the way light enters a room and bounces around a room and throws up a splash of yellow on the wall because the wood floor is polished a certain way. Suddenly, a basically nonexistent corner is ricocheting with yellow light, and it's alive with dimension. It can be as subtle as that or as garish as people wearing red socks.

DPP: Your first book Cape Light would have had a very different look if it had been done in black-and-white.

Meyerowitz: I was really talking about those scale relationships—bodies of water against the horizon with the sky and a certain kind of light at a particular time of day. You can tell the temperature of the day, the season, the humidity. It was those subtleties that began to speak to me when I was working with a view camera on Cape Cod. Basically, I had come from Fifth Avenue shooting street photography with a 35mm to Cape Cod with an 8x10 view camera I had just bought. It was an incredible conversion, like being a jazz musician on the street riffing on an alto sax to being a classical musician playing the cello very slowly.

DPP: Your book Aftermath: World Trade Center Archive (Phaidon) is an important historical record of Lower Manhattan digging itself out of the horrors of 9/11. You donated a set of digital images to the World Trade Center Archive, too, which mounted an exhibition that toured the globe through the U.S. Department of State. Where were you when the attacks happened?

Meyerowitz: I lived not far from the World Trade Center, but I was actually out on Cape Cod photographing. I got a call from my wife on the cell phone telling me to get to a television because some crazy thing was happening. I immediately wanted to go back to New York because I'm a native New Yorker and wanted to help, but I couldn't go for five days because they closed the city. When I finally went back, I went to the site right away. I had a run-in with a cop because I had a camera with me. The cop told me that there was no photography allowed. The mayor and the police commissioner had banned photography. I thought, "They can't do that. We need a record of what's going on in there. This is a piece of history that needed to be recorded." I realized that that's what I could contribute. I could make a visual record. I had to figure out how to get in there. I contacted Adrian Benepe, the commissioner of New York City's Department of Parks & Recreation, who I had known since he was a kid. He got me a worker's pass, and it was up to me to parlay that into something more permanent. I spent nine months in Ground Zero working with a 4x5, a 6x7 Mamiya and a 35mm camera, plus a video camera. The work there changed my life. Ever since then I've wanted to do more work that has a civic consciousness to it rather than just art for art's sake.

Over the years, I've seen that photography is too often about the pictures only. To me, it's always been about ideas and the ideas that pictures generate. The evolution of a photographer's ideas is part of the journey.

You can see more from Joel Meyerowitz's career at

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