Meyerowitz was born in New York in 1938 as America was emerging from the darkest days of the Great Depression. In 1962, he began walking the streets of his hometown, camera loaded with color film in hand, a departure from the street photography norm at the time. Outside of the Big Apple, he created his first book Cape Light (New York Graphic Society), released in 1979, a body of work that played an important role in the acceptance of color photography as an art form. More than a dozen books have followed, ranging in topics from redheads to the destruction and recovery at Ground Zero.
The recent release of the retrospective two-volume, limited-edition Joel Meyerowitz: Taking My Time (Phaidon) presents the photographer’s "greatest hits" and many previously unpublished images, as well as a signed print and a DVD of his award-winning film POP in an elegant slipcase.
DPP: What’s the idea behind the title of your retrospective Taking My Time?
Joel Meyerowitz:The book celebrates 50 years of photography. For any book, you struggle to find a title that’s true to the entirety of the experience. Even though I move quickly when I photograph, the way bodies of work develop happens over longer periods of time. I realized that I take my time shaping these things and never race to make a new body of work. It’s always relatively interior in that regard. So I thought, "Is that me? Have I been Taking My Time all these years?" And I realized, yes. It describes my rhythm, my momentum.
DPP: So when developing a new project, it’s important for it not to feel forced?
Meyerowitz: There are things that feel genuine. I just know that it’s not some superficial idea that I’m trying to expand that doesn’t really have richness to it. We’re all capable of being authentic and shallow at different times. One of the lessons that photography has taught me is that you can’t force things. The world, unless you’re a photographer who stages everything, doesn’t work according to your wishes. The world is the world, and you just have to try and dance with it in a way that’s meaningful and real to you.
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.
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.
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 8×10 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 4×5, a 6×7 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 www.joelmeyerowitz.com.