The Greek fabulist and storyteller Aesop is credited with the saying, “A man is known by the company he keeps.” In the case of Joel Meyerowitz, this ancient adage rings true. He “discovered” photography on a shoot with Robert Frank. Soon afterward, he was walking the streets of New York, camera in hand, with Garry Winogrand. But Meyerowitz soon took his own path, focusing his efforts in the world of color photography, something that in the early 1960s wasn’t part of the “fine art” approach to his newly found form of expression.
More than half a century later, we can look back through—in inverse chronological order—his recently released retrospective, Joel Meyerowitz: Where I Find Myself (Laurence King Publishing), to see how his career unfolded.
The now-Tuscany-based, newly turned octogenarian is finding inspiration in the work of Italian painter and printmaker Giorgio Morandi, who specialized in still lifes. This is just the latest chapter in a career that has ranged from “capturing the jazzy riff of life on the street” in urban America and scenes painted with the magical light of Cape Cod to documenting the aftermath of 9/11 and creating penetrating “eyes are the window to the soul” portraits.
Digital Photo Pro: What’s the idea behind the present-to-past format of your new retrospective?
Joel Meyerowitz: “Retrospective” means you’re standing in the present looking backwards. It’s interesting conceptually because when you’re young and you start out, you have no idea where you’re going to end up 50 years down the road. But when you’re 50 years down the road and look back, you can see all the turns you made and the turns you didn’t make. Your alignment through time becomes clearer.
DPP: Are there some turns you wish you had made and others where you would have been better off continuing straight?
JM: There were a couple of projects along the way that were dead ends at the times I did them. One in particular was making large-format fake panoramic pictures by putting together three vertical panels of people on the beach. They were very playful and interesting to me about time and space, with some people ending up in more than one panel. But they required a kind of directorial point of view, and at that time I was still close enough to my street photography roots that I thought, “You know, I’m not that interested in directing.” If you’re going to direct, you should have something you want to say, and I was only experimenting with the form. I didn’t have a social or political point of view that I wanted to enter, so I let go of it. In retrospect, I look at them and think, “Why was I so precious about the street photography point of view where you don’t touch anything?” That was one turning point that, in retrospect, I would have liked to have continued further with because it was very engaging when I was doing it.
DPP: The three images becoming one look seamless.
JM: And these were made in the days when there was no Photoshop. I would put a little twig or something in the sand, so I knew where the edge of the picture was and I knew where the horizon line was, so I had two intersecting points that allowed me to make the panoramas. I printed them quite large, 4 feet tall, and taped them together in the back, then used dyes on the edges so that you wouldn’t see the white paper. Tan dye for the sand and blue for the sky, etcetera. You could see the process, but they looked pretty good considering that we didn’t have Photoshop to make them as seamless as we can today.
DPP: You often equate jazz music to photography, especially when talking about the rhythm of the street. Are you a musician?
JM: No. In my family, we used to say that the only thing we played was the radio. The street is all spontaneous. You can never really predict what is going to happen next. So in a way, the relationship to unfolding events is a kind of inspired riff on whatever’s happening and trying to be in the right place at the right time so that there is a harmony between what’s going on there and what your intuition is. There is something improvisatory about one’s behavior on the street. If you’re going to be a good street photographer you have to know how to fit in seamlessly in the flow of things without bruising the event that you’re looking at and changing it by your presence. That feels jazz-like to me.
DPP: Improvisation is taken to a different level in jazz. On the street…
JM: You carry your instrument in your hand, loaded and cocked and ready, and when something happens—and it’s not just this one moment—you can sometimes get this sense of the unfolding moment and you insert yourself to sort of ride the moment as it unfolds into several moments. So maybe you have 10 or 15 seconds of moving your body with the flow of the crowd and the way a human event itself is morphing into the next stage, and somehow your intuition keeps you in connection with it so you can ride it out. This is clear when you look at [Henri] Cartier-Bresson, and you can see it in every significant photographer on their contact sheets. You can see how they intuit something, how they put themselves in the right place, stay with it and track it until it passes by.
DPP: Robert Frank was one of the photographers who had a major influence on you.
JM: Seeing him at work was one of those formative moments. I was working as a graphic designer/art director in a small advertising agency and had designed a booklet, and my boss, Harry Gordon, hired Robert to shoot the pictures for it. I knew nothing about photography. Harry said, “Here’s the address. Go to this place. Robert has set up a shoot with two young girls to cover the things you need for the booklet.”
I went down and watched Robert for over an hour photographing two sort of 12-year-old girls. They weren’t professionals, he must have gotten some friends of his daughter. He had them do the after-school things that they would normally do, and he became invisible to them. Just by moving his body or whispering a word, they would continue their action. What struck me so strongly was the fact that they were moving and he was moving, and he was taking pictures at the same time. He never once said, “Stop. Hold that pose. Lift your chin.” This was during the time of Action Painting and Abstract Expressionism. As an Action Painter, I understood movement and moving paint, but I never thought photography did that. And I think that was the turning point for me. It was as if I had a fresh idea. I was innocent. I had no camera. I knew nothing about photography, but the concept that you could go out on the street and watch the movement of people, and you could stop that at some point that seemed to have meaning was a revelation.
When I left that shoot, everything on that street seemed to come alive to me. The simplest gestures. “Taxi!” It was like drama. Suddenly, everything seemed to have some underlining meaning. It was one of those transformative moments. I stopped being what I was before, and I became this other person who wanted to be out on the street making photographs. I went back to my office and told the agency about the shoot and quit my job. “I’ll finish the design, and on Friday I’m leaving.” It was as if my life changed right in front of me.
DPP: What was the product that was being marketed in the brochure?
JM: Condé Nast was our main client, and they had a bunch of magazines that they did for certain clients, like Kimberly-Clark, who made Kleenex and other cosmetic products. Estelle Ellis, who owned the agency, was trying to sell products to pre-teenagers because she saw the potential market there, and her job for Condé Nast was to increase their market by finding new ways to reach these kids. Estelle came up with the slogan—“they’re tenteen before they’re thirteen.” This was 1962, and it’s still a good example of how marketing works. She was a very savvy advertising and marketing person, and this little booklet went to potential advertisers. “You’ve got a line of lipstick for pre-teenage girls, why don’t you advertise in Condé Nast?” This was to show that there was such a market. I still have one copy. It has about a dozen Robert Frank photos in it.
DPP: How did you go about learning photography for yourself?
JM: My boss at the agency was so sweet. He said, “Well, if you’re going to be a photographer, you have to have a camera. Do you have a camera?” I said, “No, I don’t.” He pulled out an Asahi Pentax: “Use this until you can afford to buy a camera.” He showed me how to use the camera, so all I did was go out on the street with a couple of rolls of color film and just began to figure it out.
DPP: It’s interesting that in 1962 you went out on the streets as a student with color film. Why did you reach up instead of down or left instead of right when you got to the film section of the store?
JM: I didn’t know any better. At that time, I didn’t know that serious photography was done in black and white. I had seen some photo annuals—puppies leaping for balls, big-breasted women in sand dunes, photographs from World War II, stop-motion pictures of people juggling, but that was about it. All that schmaltz that magazines ran. I really knew nothing about photography. But what I did know was that I wanted to shoot something that I could see a day later and project them on the wall so I could look at them 2 feet across. It was the ease of use of slide film. I wanted, let’s face it, instant gratification. I wanted to see the pictures right away, and I didn’t have a darkroom. I didn’t know any of that stuff. And, also, life is in color. So it made very direct common sense to me.
DPP: What kind of slide film were you working with? ASA’s back then were pretty slow, which would make it tough to freeze the action for street photography.
JM: At the time, it was called Kodachrome II. A Roman numeral two, which later on became Kodachrome 25. You could shoot in the hard sunlight, which I loved, at 1/250th of a second at around ƒ/5.6 or ƒ/4.5. As soon as it became gray or in the blue hour, you were stuck with long exposures. But I was out in the middle of the day with sunlight. What I loved about 5th Avenue was how sexy it was in sunlight with all those buildings and women with coats and lipstick.
DPP: What lenses were you working with?
JM: I had gotten the Pentax with a 50mm lens on it. After about a month, I got so frustrated using it, though I knew nothing about lenses. I just kept feeling, “Oh, I’m too close!” So I went to a camera store and talked to a guy: “Everything’s too close, there’s no space in the picture.” He said, “You need a 35mm lens.” So I bought a used 35mm Zeiss Flektogon lens with a screw mount, which could fit on a Pentax. It was incredible. It changed my life. A 35mm is virtually a 1:1 lens. If you stand someplace and look at something, it’s at the right distance, so you see what you get. It’s not closer or further away.
DPP: I thought a lot of street photographers worked with the 28mm?
JM: Garry Winogrand used a 35. Lee Friedlander used a 35. All of our friends…Tod Papageorge. Everyone eventually bought a 28mm because there were times when you were working late in the day in crowds where you might want the benefit of a deeper field of focus, but then you had to learn how to use it so you didn’t bend it in a way where everything flew out the sides. Now, of course, Leica makes aspherical lenses to correct for that.
DPP: What are you shooting with these days in terms of 35mm cameras?
JM: I shoot with a Leica M, Leica M10 and the Leica S, which is a larger-format Leica. You can make a 60-inch print with it, and you can’t tell if it were made with an 8×10 camera or a Leica. The quality is superb.
DPP: What did you glean from your series of side-by-side comparisons of color vs. black and white photographs?
JM: That was very important for me. The first ones I did were in 1963. By that time, I had started making black and white pictures, too, because I wanted the prints. Color prints were expensive, and I didn’t really have any money, I was out of a job. And everybody was saying, “Black and white. Black and white.” Although I was making them, I kept feeling color was my voice. The only way to make an argument for the validity of color was to make pairs of pictures so I could show them. “This is a black and white image, but look what happens when you have it in color. Isn’t that blue-gray sky, and the yellow raincoat, isn’t that content? Otherwise, you go to a gray sky and a gray coat. There’s no dialogue between these things?” So, in a way, I was trying to prove to myself and my peers that there was more information available in a color picture.
John Szarkowski at MOMA was very important to my generation. John began at the museum in 1962, the same year I began to shoot. A year later, he actually put a picture of mine in a show. He had a way of looking at photographs and talking about them in a speculative manner that made us much more aware of photography’s potential. One of the things John said was, “When you pressed the button, the camera described what was in front of it.” I heard that and thought, “Well, if all a camera does is describe things, a color picture describes more things. So it means there’s more content in color because a black and white picture is devoid of color content.” I didn’t want to lose that color content.
DPP: Do you have a go-to paper for printing to get the most out of your images in terms of color?
JM: I have three papers. I use a HP large-format printer—40 inches in New York and 24 inches [in my other studio]. I use Hahnemühle rag paper, Canson Rag Photographique and HP professional Satin. When I want to go photographic, I go with the Satin. For my still lifes, I use both Hahnemühle and Canson, depending on the image I’m working with. They absorb blacks differently. If it doesn’t have as much black in it, I tend to go for Hahnemühle. If it has more black, I tend to go for Canson.
DPP: In your new book, you mention that you thought the great Japanese ukiyo-e artist Hokusai would have been a great street photographer. It’s an interesting concept because, in a way, the woodblock print gave way to the camera in the late 19th century.
JM: That whole series on Mt. Fuji, views along the Tokaido Road, really show early street smarts. He was looking at peddlers and fishermen and warriors and farmers and prostitutes and geishas. Everything that was going on was simultaneously under or in relation to Mt. Fuji. So Mt. Fuji was the constant, and life’s craziness was the constant, and he put them together. That kind of space where the thing in the background, even if it’s invisible in the fog or hidden by clouds, the knowledge of that and the things that are going on in front are part of what make the plane. His prints operate on a two-dimensional plane and give the illusion of a space, but they are happening simultaneously on a two-dimensional plane. So being a photographer who believed in the photographic flatness, they move on to bring things far away into the flatness of the frontal plane with actions and activity. I think Hokusai was thinking like a photographer even before photography came to Japan.
DPP: And you trained as an artist before you became a photographer. Is Gateway Arch in St. Louis your Mt. Fuji?
JM: It was. I treated it like that and circled around it, so in almost every picture something of the arch was there, shrouded in mist or rain, one leg, a piece if it between two buildings. St. Louis was a dying, small urban center in America, and they started tearing down whole blocks of downtown St. Louis. Wherever I walked, I could see a piece of the Arch poking through. And that gave me the sense in a kind of Mt. Fuji-like way. To have a dialogue with this new sculpture, which was trying to portray St. Louis as the Gateway to the West while at the time the city was actually falling apart. It was finished in 1965. I got a commission from the director of the museum. He had seen some of my 8×10 format pictures of Cape Cod. I was out in St. Louis doing some research for Bystander, the book Colin Westerbeck and I did on the history of street photography. He asked, “Could you do this here in St. Louis?” I said, “You mean like a commission?” I thought, “Somebody is going to pay me?” I shot it all with a vintage Deardorff camera built in 1938, the year I was born.
DPP: How does someone like you who’s been so influenced by urban life end up in a farmhouse in Tuscany?
JM: David Lyman, who had the Maine Photographic Workshops, would call me every summer and ask, “Joel, do you want to teach in Maine?” and I would say, “I’m on the Cape, it’s warmer here, I can swim,” and I was working on my own stuff. By 1995, my first wife and I had been separated for about five years, and we were sharing our summer house, so I could only have it for, let’s say, August and September, and David called again, “Joel, Bali or Tuscany?” I looked at Maggie, the woman I’m married to now, and asked, “Bali or Tuscany?” She said, “Tuscany.” So we went to Tuscany, and we taught a workshop right where we are now. It was so beautiful here, and the local people were so welcoming. We started coming back, and for part of seven summers we taught our own workshops, and we put down roots. Then, four or five years ago, we decided to come here for a year. It was so satisfying we stayed for another year. It’s been four years since we’ve been here full time. We’re not doing the workshops anymore, but I’m doing a very interesting online master workshop. I think the series is going to be very successful.
DPP: Not only the Italian landscape and neighbors, but the Italian artist Giorgio Morandi has had an influence on you.
JM: I started doing still lifes a few years ago, when Maggie and I had been given a commission to do a book on Provence. While there, we went to Aix-en-Provence, because it’s a beautiful town, and we went to Cézanne’s studio. In his studio, I got some sort of hit. A history hit. He had painted his walls gray. And I wondered why [would] this guy, who was basically the father of modern painting, do that. I studied it and went back later and asked if I could do some photographs of some of his objects against a gray wall merely as a way of studying a space that he operated in. It was so powerful to me that I started doing still lifes, not in the conventional sense of making beautiful objects, because I never collected objects, but I started trying to understand what a still life was photographically. Just like I studied street photography or portrait photography or landscape photography. These are all aspects of photography, but I had never made a still life. It’s so engaging that now I find myself really engaged in it. After Cézanne, I went up to Bologna, which is only a few hours north of here, where Giorgio Morandi had his studio. He died in 1964, but his studio is intact. I went there because he was a master of the still life. I wanted to see if I could have a dialogue with who Morandi was and to see what I could learn, what I might be able to take from it that would be interesting and challenging photographically. You cannot make photographs that do what Morandi’s paintings did. He could make things flat. A photograph always has space in it. It’s totally different. But having a dialogue with someone who did that was interesting for me. A life in photography has offered me all of these challenges. I think that’s what keeps me interested in the medium. There’s always something new to consider.