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View Camera Magazine, May/June 1995, "Joel Meyerowitz"
by Rosalind Smith

The thermometer reads in the 90's and a sudden southwest breeze picks up, stirring the water in the bay and flecking the ripples with sunlight. I am standing with New York photographer Joel Meyerowitz at his summer home in the East End of Provincetown at the tip of Cape Cod, overlooking the site of his inspirational books Cape Light (1978) and Bay/Sky (1993).

"It's just sky and water," Meyerowitz says, "but on any given day at any given moment it changes and becomes a different color or atmosphere and I am caught up in it as an artist."

What is this special moment out of the endless film going on out there that makes Meyerowitz snap to attention and take a photograph? it might be a light shift, he tells me, or perhaps the wind picks up or there's a smell that changes. It may be even less tangible, but it is something that he recognizes and responds to. A memorable example is the shot of a clothesline full of orange and striped blue and white sheets furling against the grey shingles of a simple summer cottage set beneath the dense blue sky. It is the essence of summer on Cape Cod told in a tale of colorful laundry snatched by the breeze.

Joel Meyerowitz speaks of photography with a reverence that borders on mysticism. For him, photographing is about the process of being in the present. "We tend to sleepwalk through our lives—to drift," he explains. "What inspires me is a response to that sharpened sense of being here now and that is the underpinning of my work."

"Then," he continues, "there are other considerations like where I stand, how fast I react, and how much I am willing to throw things off the perfect composition. I always want to add something to my picture so it continues beyond the edge—a good photograph always implies that there's something going on beyond the frame."

Here in Provincetown there is a horizon, a sky above, the sea below. It's a natural continuum. Meyerowitz compares it to street photography where life is tumbling into the frame and he must make crucial decisions. He may center an event or he may move it to the side so that it becomes one of many things happening within the frame. By displacing his subject he allows everything in the picture an equivalency and creates an opportunity to look left or right, close or deep into space. "It is always something to consider," he advises, "what goes on inside and outside the frame. It's part of the photographer's vocabulary. The slightest move with this 8 X 10 camera changes everything." He invites me to look through the ground glass and I see that one inch gives me vast hunks of the horizon. The frame pulses with change. Suddenly our view of the beach shifts. A minute ago there was nothing there. Now two people have set up blue and white striped chairs and a beach umbrella. Meyerowitz is alerted. "Look, you can see his pink flesh through the back of that chair and the ripple of sunlight through hers. It's not pure sunlight, it's modified through the umbrella. A view camera will see and define those difference. Ah, this is interesting—the chairs have been set up so beautifully, classic in a way. It's worth a photograph."

He decides to add the striped boards of a nearby bulkhead. Now it is no longer a pure picture of two chairs and an umbrella. There is something else to think about. The chairs are on the right, the bulkhead on the left. Again he moves, this time a bit out of the yard. Someone is setting up a billowing red and white sail. Now there is red, white and blue in the image. he weighs the decision whether or not to include it. "I am putting the bit of sail in because I want the viewer to see it. It is not an accident. A photographer must turn the camera and take in a bit of this for sweetness and a bit of that for tartness-it's like a great dessert."

For Meyerowitz, the idea of accident is unacceptable. He quotes Louis Pasteur, who said, "Chance favors the prepared minds." "So, if I am prepared and I have a camera in my hand and the chance occurs and I am there, I make a picture. If the event went unrecorded, then that would be an accident."

Pasteur's wise words are well heeded for someone who lugs around 25 to 30 pounds of equipment. So that he won't be stuck unpacking a camera, Meyerowitz carries his 8 X 10, fully mounted on a tripod, around on a small pad on his shoulder. He also brings along 10 holders which allow him to expose 20 sheets of film. This means that each shot has to count. "One must be absolutely in touch with ones subject," he warns. "It's an elegant little dance a view camera does."

Once more he's on the move. Now a child with a silver bowl has joined the scene and Meyerowitz sees it as a minor key, a reference in its shape to the umbrella. "Watch, he's going to put it over his head—there's something to pay attention to here-any minute the bowl will become an umbrella—the child will have his umbrella and the people will have theirs-a whole new relationship will happen." his attentiveness to the whole scene has enlarged the subject and it has now become "life on the beach. If someone sees the picture some day and asks me 'How did you get that shot,'" he states, "I will answer, I was just paying attention."

Although he uses a 35mm mainly for his commercial work, Meyerowitz favors the view camera. "It has such generosity of spirit," he states, "it's so big minded. The photograph will describe this scene precisely. It will zoom in on those people under the umbrella, then take a trip across the beach and see the layers of seaweed left by the tide. The shadows will tell what time of the day it is. If you were a sleuth, all the information that you would want would be in the picture."

"With and 8 X 10 you get under the dark cloth and you see the image upside down. It's all there, suspended. People hang from the ceiling like chandeliers while a chandelier hanging from the ceiling becomes and enormous growth coming out of the floor. You can play with those things."

"Whenever I look at good 8 X 10 photography like Atget or Edward Weston I always turn the work upside down just to have the fun and to feel the kind of kinetic energy that is in the frame and is contained when they made the picture and is somehow spent when the film is turned right side up. I would like readers to see my pictures upside down so they could get into my space, see how I look abstractly and try to make a distinction about working in the upside-down world of the view camera."

The camera that Meyerowitz is referring to is an 8 X 10 Deardorff field camera manufactured in March, 1938, the month and year he was born. He uses a 10" wide field Ektar lens which is the equivalent approximately of a 35mm. "It has enough of the wide field to make me feel that when I stop and say this is the spot and I look in the camera, what I see is what I felt. I don't have to walk further into the picture or step further away. I've learned to see like that lens now and it puts me right in the place. You know that old expression, 'I am a camera?' Well, it's important to try to find that in yourself."

Meyerowitz admits that he never expected to be working with a view camera. As a student at Ohio State University, he majored in art, art history, and medical illustration. he then moved to New York where he became an art director and graphic designer. There he met Robert Frank who was to change his life. He found that his views of photography which had always defined it as a still medium where nobody moved, were outdated. Here was Frank, moving and bobbing and shooting two young girls who were "living their life." Meyerowitz got a 35mm camera and subsequently began to work as a street photographer. For a short time he photographed in color, then switched to black and white. In the late 1960's he committed himself completely to color, doing his own color printing into the 1970's.

The early 1960's when Meyerowitz began his career, was a time when people were shooting for the sake of the medium. Many of the big magazines had folded and there was little or no photographer in the art world. he met Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, Diane Arbus, and Ralph Gibson. "We had the time of our lives," he recalls. "There was no hierarchy, no ambition to be the hottest gallery photographer. It was a time when purity of form took precedence and the idea of making a living as a photographer was absurd. Adams's and Weston's were selling for $25.00. We were a small fraternity of fellow workers who loved the medium and each others work and we produced pictures that had energy, immediacy, and a point of view."

In the late 1960's his career began to take off. There was an advertising campaign for Volvo cars that was followed by national advertising jobs for Seagrams, Nike, IBM and recently for Tetley Tea, an assignment for which he used his view camera. many solo exhibition followed the publication of his first book, Cape Light and include the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and the Provincetown Art Association and Museum. Other books followed; the latest, The Nature of Cities, was recently published in Italy.

In 1970, Meyerowitz won a National Endowment for the Humanities award and in 1971 won a Guggenheim Award. Numerous others have followed and his work is included in major collections such as the Seagram Collection, George Eastman House, AT&T Collection, and the San Francisco Museum of Art.

It was in 1976 that Meyerowitz made his first 8 X 10 photograph. "I sat in this little house in Truro on Cape Cod. It was astonishing. I was trying to get the camera to work. I had just set it up on a tripod and I was looking at everything upside down and I said, 'Hey this is beautiful,' and I took a picture. It became one of my all-time best photographs and it's the first picture in my book Cape Light. Beginner's luck."

For Meyerowitz photography has become a game of sight that he plays with his camera. On the one hand he works rapidly to catch the ephemeral moment, looking for some spontaneity, a bringing of his 35mm experience as a street photographer where movement is everything, and the seemingly resistant quality of the 8 X 10. "With a view camera," he warns, "you have to take a good look at what you photograph and be exquisitely precise about the things you see. You're responsible for every element in every corner of the frame and you can't say, 'I meant to do this differently.'" for Meyerowitz it's the moment when a wisp of red hair is caught in the sunlight across the face of a young girl and we catch a glimpse of the patch of freckles on her shoulder, the traditional mark of a redhead. Or it may be the irresistible sight of a mound of sand emerging out of a pure white fog.

His standards are high and he says that the criteria for his own work as well as the work of others is never the subject. "When you look at the best bodies of work in the history of photography, they are pictures of the reality that was available at the time and they tell us about the intelligence, persistence, humor, inventiveness and passion—the poem inside the heart of the photographer.

"Photography is a mute medium, but if you look at picture after picture you begin to know something about a place, but you also begin to know about the person who made it. If you look at all the work I've done you will know something about the particular way I make a picture, what it is that calls me out again and again.

"That 'something' is what makes you catch your breath, that moment where you are watching the world and you gasp. It's innocent. Every day of our lives we say "ah" about something. That's what's so wonderful about photography."

 



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