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From A Summer's Day, "Summer Time" by Joel Meyerowitz

Summertime. Summer time! The first time of my life. No sooner do I say these words than a window on memory opens. An image appears—always the first. I am leaning on a cushion on the windowsill in the cascade of gridded light from a fire escape. I am nine years old. It is a summer's day. A storm is coming. Darkness, descending on the Bronx, dims the rocky ball field and the ash piles in the empty lot across the street and sweeps over the elevated train tracks stretching into the distance and beyond over the tenements and hills of the Bronx. A tattered sheet of rain drags from west to east. Thunder rumbles. The air becomes heavy. I smell the special blend peculiar to cities of warm rain pelting dust and concrete. Blue and slow, the rain inches up my street, spraying a shine on the blacktop where I rollerskate (how smooth!) and play stickball (pitcher-batter-catcher) and ring-a-levio and Johnny-on-the-pony and draw with chalk anything I can conceive. As the line of rain reaches my window, it stops! The left half of the street is stained to a dark mirror; the right half, dusted with chalk scratch, holds the wet line on its dry gray palm—right there in front of me—pictured in the center of my window! Slowly the rain pulls away. A growing glow of light fills the air. Steam curls off the street. The hot blacktop slowly exhausts its shining skin; continents emerge and disappear as the street comes back to street again. The sun, growing more intense, lopes without effort or pause over everything standing in its path, glazing it all with white light, until it lands on the stormy wall of the sky. Arcing like a beam from a movie projector, it plays its prism of color across the sky.

Now, nearly forty years later, as I photograph, I often find myself in the same state of suspension as I watch the world shape itself before my eyes. It is as if I move back from where I am and see myself seeing. I am passionately involved, yet distant and objective, seeing all the details and feeling the rush at the same moment. It's something like being a child and being a grown-up at the same time.

It's important when photographing to see different things simultaneously. Because there is so little time in the photographic moment, it must be expanded by consciousness to let in as much as can be contained. The photographer becomes the medium through which all the moments that have been savored and measured and found meaningful have passed, and now with the addition of this newest element, all the rest are compounded and recomposed providing a new vision of the whole.

The photographs you have seen here are the distillation of seven summers. They are my way of taking in and examining with a finer hand the effects that moments in time have had on me. I have arranged them, these fragile paper timeships dusted with information, dense yet clear, so that they might transport me back to that precise morning in July when air and water were one, to that country road, to that walk through the woods to the pond, to that unforgettable piercing look into another face, to that bowl of dewy raspberries in fresh sunlight, to all the promise summer holds as it unfolds.

Summertime, more than any other time of the year, brings me to a state of mind where this dual relationship is fluid, in harmony. In summer, I go back for a while to that other time. I shed my clothes, walk to the water's edge, and step in. I feel nature all around me. I wear it as a skin. I stare into space as long as I can. I look deeply into other faces. I lie in the sand and in the grass, feeling for what it felt like the first time. Summer is a time for remembering; it's the time when growing things make the seeds that are their memory. It is a time for taking in.

I remember the mornings, the promise of the day. I am lying in bed in a farmhouse in Pennsylvania. It is early in the morning. I am ten years old. The sun will soon rise in the V of the valley. I know it by the creak of a gate and the muffled ting of a cow's bell. Belle's bell. Far away I hear the low groan of the oncoming train; the plaintive moan of the horn mixes with the lowing of the anxious cows in the barn. All of this smothered in the sleep I am rising from. The train surges around the bend in the river, pushing its note ahead of it. The pulsing, fading sigh prints itself in me forever. I lift my head and raise the white curtain. There is nothing there! The world is white: the haze off the river has rolled up to the window—a whiteness burns in the white. All I can see are the sounds of the morning.

Summer mornings in the city brought to me the sweet smell of warm air over damp pavement, the cool of the night still hidden in secret places. Suddenly waking, thinking it a school day, I'm lost for a moment in time. Collapsing back on the pillow, I remember it's summer.

I'm out of bed in an instant. The house feels different. It's breathing more slowly than it does the rest of the year. Into the kitchen; my elbows take up the cool enamel chill of the table. I read the back of the cereal box over my crackling bowl. Murmurs from the courtyard behind me come through the screen. Someone's mother is up hanging out the wash in the boxed-in courtyard. I wonder if the man who sings the rag song will come today, or the old violinist with his hat out to whom we throw a penny wrapped in tissue, torn between the desire to get it into his upturned hat and the urge to bean him. Wandering peddlers and entertainers come through the neighborhood—old Europe, carrying its trades and traditions to the alleyways of the Bronx. A pageant of Italian opera singers and sentimental Viennese violinists, hawkers of old clothes and scrap metal, knife sharpeners with their wheels on their backs, the organ grinder—all pass beneath my window.

A few minutes later I find myself on the street. I'm in a pair of shorts and a T-shirt—my favorite ones. I could wear them every day of the summer. I've got on a pair of black high-top sneakers—this summer's pair. How fast they feel when they're new. I'm ready for anything. Ahead of me lies an entire day stretching way into the night. How many days will there be today?

I'm sitting on the stoop in front of my building. I've got a stick in my hands. A piece of that weed tree that will grow anywhere, out of any crack; we call it the cork tree. If you break off a branch and slice it in half, you can pull out the corky substance in the middle and roll it like an eraser between your fingers, or you can pop it in your mouth and chew it. If you are really careful you can push a smaller stick through the branch and hollow it out to make a blowgun for spitballs. This morning, however, I'm just rubbing it on the sidewalk, sharpening it, aimlessly, watching the point develop and the shreds of bark and pulp come off. A shadow falls across me; it's the milkman. The tinkling of his bottles of milk, like small chimes in the morning, comes with the shadow. He's got the Daily Mirror under his arm. I can see it says, "Yanks Crush…" Those were the days. He gives me two bottles of milk. When he leaves, I peel back the crimped paper hat on the bottle and lift off the paper lid. Stuck to the inside of the top is a thick layer of cream. I clear the yellow cream from the lid with my pinky, put the lid back on, and suck the fresh cream from my finger. A quick dash inside with the milk bottles and I'm back on the street. Sitting on the stoop is one of my friends. When I join him, he pulls a handful of marbles from his pocket, beauties—tiger eyes. He shows me the meanest one—slit-eyed and yellow. How did this piece of glass catch the fire of a tiger's eye in all its fierce intensity? A piece of chalk appears. A circle is made. We're down on our hands and knees. There are so many things to see when you're down on your knees on the ground. I look at the color of the pebbles embedded in the concrete, tiny in size. I become a giant, lost in looking. Later, when he leaves, I have a handful of sun-warmed marbles. I roll them back and forth, listening to their click and chatter. Back and forth, the filling up and emptying of my hands, the sweet sifting feeling. These bits of glass—each one a world, a cosmos in my hands. I hold one up to the sunlight, blinding myself with the aura of the sun, watching the color ignite through the marble and suspend itself fractured in my eye.

The first few grown-ups are beginning to pass by. They're going to work. They disappear down the street and climb the long flight of stairs to the El. Some of them seem to be happy. There is no more talk of the war. My mother leans out the window. Her firm, clear voice tips me out of my reverie. Would I go around the corner to the store—yes—the market and the bakery—yes! How I love this trust—to touch and pick fruit; cut butter from a tub; carry a warm fleshy loaf of rye bread under my arm. Down the street I go with the marchers to work, invisible between them, watching their long early-morning shadows stretch across the pavement, shoes attached to them. Hubcaps nearby showed me a bent-out-of-shape world full of figures on stilts and squashed dwarfs; the world is a fun house. I climb the steps of the El with the workers and watch them push through the turnstiles. The ching of the money and the gulp and thud of the wooden turnstile have a gratifying marching sound to them. I watch the little band carried away by the train. The windows of the station give it the appearance of a train. I look out and down on my neighborhood—the long block of five-story tenements, the wide black street, the empty lots filled with ash heaps and crude ball fields, the wild undergrowth and tree line along the trickle of a finger of the Bronx River, where we catch frog and snakes and rabbits and Japanese beetles (a big contribution to the war effort by boys under twelve). Boy Scout knots and traps were useful a hundred yards from the El.

On the fringe of the outfield was a large bush that was left standing because it seemed special in a mysterious way. Crawling through its tangled branches, we entered a leafy, dome-like hogan where the earth was stamped hard and the sky was visible through an opening in the thicket. There the mysteries and rituals and initiations of childhood merging into adolescence took place. The shrine in the outfield. Snakes we caught in the river, fifty feet away, were sacrificed there. Scary stories were told to us there by young men returned from the war, somber and hot-eyed in the dusk. Sometimes a pipe was passed around. One afternoon a teen-aged girl peeled off her clothes, slowly showing us her mystery in the flickering sunlight. Like deer, we rested—motionless—a circle of boys watching an age-old ritual. She seemed shy, but determined and entranced. Her motions, trapped in sun dapple, were both fixed and blurred. I'll see forever two arms raised and bent over her head, which lolled back on her neck, her cheek brushing her shoulder as she pulled at the edges of a T-shirt echoing the shape of her rib cage laced with sunlight. I could hear the elevated subway clatter by half a block away.

The market! I run down the steps and into the dark cavern of the market. Tiers of fruit are piled on my left; glass cases of butter and cheese and eggs are on my right. But down in the back, up a step and in the gloom is where I'm headed—to Morris, the fish man, presiding over his glassy pink and speckled gray display laid out on the ice like a multiplication table. Here, under a dirty skylight—how beautiful that light was, softly laying down a gelatinous coating of shine on everything—standing and waiting, he had the time to share it. Next to all those slit and motionless cutouts was a metal box. Tiptoes took you to the edge. Inside was the rumble of water. It sounded deep and far away. Moishe pulled back the big wooden cover. The light penetrated down into the box. A school of gray fish, long as baseball bats, thick and telephone books, moved against the pressure of the running water. Did they think they were in the sea? Did they know they were lost? I reach in and pet the fish, run my hand down their flanks and fins. Giant carp, gefilte fish to be, their eyes like cold marble, give me the shivers.

On the way back from the market, my penny burning in my fist, I stopped in the candy store. So many things in bottles! All those colors-gum balls, jelly beans sugar bananas, chocolate babies, jujubes, rock candy—jewels glowing in a candy store. My eye was caught by something else. Near the picture cards of ball players and boxers and airplanes was something called mystery paper. It was a negative and printing—out paper. I picked one. It was easy; they were all a mystery. I raced home with the packages, then ran the five flights to the tarry roof. The sun was high. I pulled open the small package and took out the shiny negative and the dull paper. Pressing them together I aimed them at the light and held them with such fierce pressure that my thumbs turned white. Time crept by while I waited for something that I couldn't see to appear. I looked around the roof. Most of the time we were not allowed up here with other kids, mothers fearing that one of us would throw the other off instead of the balloon filled with water. My eye caught sight of a shiny scarecrow of an object stuck on the roof. It had two arms shaped like an H. A wire went down to an apartment below. It was the only one. Had heard that someone had bought a television—something about a box with a picture in it. For the moment, the picture in my hands was all I wanted.

I lifted the negative, my breath caught in my throat. There was a man sitting on a chair in the country on a sunny afternoon. His shadow falling on the ground beside him was caught in that of the chair. His hand held a pipe on his thigh. A cloud in the distance rested on his head. My eyes came to his face. There was something in it that seemed calm but then shifted to something else when I looked at his eyes and the cloud together. I wasn't sure if he was calm or wild. Someone was standing outside the picture; just his hand and a long shadow came into the frame. The sun was hard. My pulse was beating in my neck. What I saw in the picture seemed beautiful to me. I looked at this image, the size of a matchbook, so intensely for so long that when I tried to stand up I couldn't. I was dizzy from concentrating in the sun, and my knees were stuck in the hot tar of the roof. After I had freed myself and run downstairs to soak the print in vinegar, I thought: I want a lot of these papers to see what comes out on them.

My mother is in the kitchen making enormous sandwiches on fresh rye bread full of aromatic seeds scattered like splinters over and throughout the bread. My mouth is watering already. "We're going to the pool," she says. I watch her hands arrange and shape what I'll soon demolish. She takes great pleasure in everything she does. Peaches and plums seem to leap from the bowl into her hands. That summer I was too young to go into the men's bathhouse and the pool alone. I went with my mother and her friends to the women's lockers, aware for the first time that I felt strange being there. The lockers, in long avenues open to the sky, had Dutch doors and were dark inside and smelled of powder and rubber hats and chlorine. My mother and her friends crowded into one. Standing as tall as their thighs, I pulled on my bathing suit beneath their laughter and chatter. I looked up at these naked women above me, stretching into and pulling on their suits and caps, and saw their abundant bodies rolling and swaying in the slivered light and shadow coming through the Dutch door. My first image of women. Although yearned to be in the men's lockers, I found it delicious to be invisible among the women. I raced to the cool of the water.

One summer day my family rented a bungalow on the beach in Far Rockaway. Each afternoon of that summer, our fathers came, by subway or car, back to the sandy little lanes the bungalows sat on. Tearing off their clothes, they raced like kids down the beach to the water, where all the boys waited for them. Hand-in-hand, men and boys ran in a line into the surf, where we spent the hours before dinner riding the waves. One day my father was late. I took someone else's hand and went into the water. I stepped into a deep hole that the tide had covered and sank up to my shoulders. The sand collapsed in around me; the waves were pounding overhead. My arms were pinned to my sides; the more I struggled, the deeper I sank. I yelled bubbles; the darkest fear raged through me; they were looking for me; my lungs were bursting. I looked up and saw my bubbles going toward the light; a hand came crashing down on my head and tore me by the hair up from the hole and into the air.;

That summer I slept in a room that was really the screened porch of the bungalow. It was like being inside and outside at the same time. The screen became a medium between me and the world. The sun stretched and colored its way across it; rain dripped and jeweled on the screen; insects wandered and wove their paths through it; planes and clouds and shadows were trapped in the squares and frame of the screen; people entered and left. The world was a theater on my screen.

The afternoon is drifting toward the long, golden hours. I grab my glove, climb out the window, and drop the six feet to the street. The guys are on the move; the unspoken call to the ball field is heard. The heat feels good on the back of my arms. Across the street the infield glitters in a mixture of broken glass and mica; you don't want to slide! I trot onto the field and step into my position; it's good to have a place you've earned. I look over at my shortstop—quick hands, the playmaker. Second and first, speed and reach. Playing baseball is one of life's great lessons! The solid whack as the ball jumps off the bat; you move on instinct; sound and motion combine to send you to the right place at the right time. The ball skips into the pocket. Hard contact! Perfect! Even though it's all happening fast, you c an experience it as if in slow motion. Time is flexible if you care to see it that way. I watch my teammates. Like a clockworks, we all move together. Our timing, hinged on fractions of a second, is precise, yet contains enough time to hold the ball, lovingly feel the stitches, hesitate, watch, extend the decision to throw just long enough to see it all, to give it tension and beauty and then to hum the ball across the infield and beat the runner by a step. Watching and acting in the same moment, moving in harmony with others, taking all the time you need for completion—these are gifts that discipline provides.

The light slowly draws out of the day. Someone's mother calls, and we all head for the table.

Memories, photographs. I pile them up print after print, day after day, summer after summer, building up a skein of images with which I weave a braid of time, past under present, now over then. Even now, years away from my childhood on the streets of the Bronx, I hear the echoes of summer. Those moments each of us carries in his own way, yet shares. A screened porch; a sudden storm passing and leaving that starched, fresh smell in the air; the warm body of a peach in your hand; a freckled girl; the wildness of rose breath in the evening; that slant of light falling on your bed, telling you how late the summer is….

"Hey, Jo-wul"-dinner's over—"c'mon out." Music to my ears. Ahead of us the night will be filled with games. The chase was on. Ring-a-levio, kick-the-can, hide-and-seek-young gods in their glory streamed from the tenements and gathered on the ash heaps. Olympus in the Bronx. The hour between the dog and the wolf was approaching. We begin to change from those obedient children our parents know into the frenzied packs and hunters of the night. We race through the alleys in the darkness, baying in chorus or alone at street light, moon light, car light, stealthily watching lovers, peering in windows, shadowing parents on their walks. The street's our circus of life. We run till we're exhausted, and then we part.

I stand panting, glistening in the darkness of the empty lots, listening to my heart pound, looking at the light in my window across the gulf of the street, wishing that summer would never end.




© 2003-2006 Joel Meyerowitz Photography, LLC. All rights reserved.