Camera Magazine, May/June 1995, "Joel Meyerowitz"
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).
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."
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.
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 livesto
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."
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 edgea good photograph
always implies that there's something going on beyond the frame."
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 interestingthe chairs have been set up so beautifully,
classic in a way. It's worth a photograph."
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."
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."
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."
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 headthere's something to pay attention to here-any
minute the bowl will become an umbrellathe 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."
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."
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."
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."
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."
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
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
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 passionthe poem inside the heart of the
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.
'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."