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Foreword by James Wood

First there was only the river. In the eighteenth century it determined the location of the original settlement and in the nineteenth, assured growth and prosperity as the nation expanded westward. In the twentieth century the city itself moved westward, turning its back on the river that had nourished it.Above the remnants of the old, commercial riverfront rose the Gateway Arch—an abstract monument to an idea, replacing much of the specific reality of the original city.

St. Louis today is rich in both cultural identity and contradiction. It is a city that must be rummaged and pondered in all seasons and times of day to discover its secrets and its beauty. The river town of worn bricks, handcrafted stone, and cast iron co-exists nervously with the new curtain wall boxes of the expanding business area. It is a city where the unexpected detail, juxtaposition, or angle of vision is more revealing and rewarding that planned vistas and picturesque squares. It is a city where scale and space would be unexceptional were it not for one extraordinary addition.

Since its completion in 1965 Eero Saarinen's six-hundred-and-thirty-foot Arch has dominated St. Louis. Like its Parisian predecessor, which Gustave Eiffel described as "an infinite cipher," it is secular and useless, a subversive offspring of modern architecture in which form follows a purely symbolic function. The Arch is the purest example ever realized of the utopian optimism and self-confidence that motivated much of Western culture in the first half of this century. The flawless stainless steel skin and imposed logic of the catenary curve contrast totally with the messy vitality and decay of the city below. The Arch is constantly present, as a soaring vault or a disembodied segment. Even when it is hidden from view we find it has conditioned our expectations to perceive order and repetitions of its form in lesser structures.

St. Louis and the Arch are joined in a symbolic confrontation. This permanent international visitor engages its midwestern host in a dialogue worthy of Mark Twain. A meticulous advocate of ideal order confronts the American cityscape of individualism and change. This dialogue gives a contemporary meaning to the face to the city, while the river, moving silently under the bridges and invisible until one reaches the brink of the levee, remains unchanged and oblivious to these recent human developments.

The Arch is one of the most photographed subjects in America today. However, until Joel Meyerowitz began the St. Louis project in the fall of 1977, it had inspired few images of real artistic quality. The commission by the The St. Louis Art Museum, which initiated this project, grew out of the photographer's visit to St. Louis in 1976 with a selection of the eight-by-ten-inch color photographs he had made the previous two summers on Cape Cod. Until then, Meyerowtiz's reputation had been based on a spontaneous style of black and white "street" photography in the tradition of Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank, which depended on a hand-held, thirty-five-millimeter camera to participate physically in the flow of modern, urban life. In contrast, the Cape photographs were contemplative, rural, and totally dedicated to seeing in terms of color.

Despite this apparent antithesis, the new work shared the emotional viewpoint of the old. Meyerowitz has consistently sought to be equally honest to both his subject and his emotions. In his words: "I can't photograph something I don't like"' "I can't make beauty out of depravity." His intention in taking pictures is "to capture my feelings before the subject.." The resulting work, in both color and black and white, conveys a positive and optimistic attitude toward the world seen through his lens.

Meyerowitz's vision is never dominated by formal considerations. Beauty in his photographs is the result of the expression of the human content of the subject. His pictures move us more through poetry than their design. He would agree with Edward Hopper, a painter he admires, that "form, color and design are merely a means to an end, the tools I work with, and they do not interest me greatly for their own sake….My aim is always, using nature as the medium, to try to project upon the canvas my most intimate reaction to the subject as it appears when I like it most; when the facts are given unity by my interest and prejudices. Why I select certain subject rather than others, I do not exactly know, unless it is that I believe them to be the best mediums for a synthesis of my inner experience." Where most photographers have been seduced by the Arch's surface and form, Meyerowtiz has transcended these to express its dialogue with the city and its timeless relationship to the river.

Meyerowitz's preferred equipment, an antiquate Deardorff view camera with fixed tripod and slow shutter speeds, has proved to be well suited to making some of the medium's most advanced color photographs. The addition of color greatly increases the amount and subtlety of information the photographer can record. The vast range of gradation possible for each tone eliminates the hieratic abstraction of the black and white image where everything is reduced to one of two opposites. But while color provides more visual information, it increases the opportunities for manipulation and deception. Artistic control is often the first casualty of this most facile of mediums as improved color film and all-purpose lenses multiply the expressive choices available to the photographer. The limitations of Meyerowitz's equipment have imposed a salutary discipline, requiring him to choose his subjects carefully and then compose them on the camera's ground glass with its rectilinear grid. Cartier-Bresson's "decisive moment" is replaced by a contemplative gaze. Meyerowitz's eye, honed by years of athletic work with thirty-five millimeter, now discovers static visual events as rich in meaning and wit as the action he recorded in the past. The unwieldy eight-by-ten negative rewards this patience by absorbing the subject in breathtaking detail. More time is spent in the darkroom achieving the desired print than under the camera's black cloth before the subject. Like Monet in his studio, Meyerowitz refines the first impression recorded on the negative until observation and expression are perfectly combined in the finished print.

The commision that Meyrowitz received was not precise. It did not specify a subject or a point of view, but merely stated that he would respond to what he found of visual interest in the city. On four extended visits in different seasons he traversed St. Louis from the river to Union Station and from Pruitt-Igoe to Ralston Purina, occasionally going farther afield, but always focusing back on the downtowwn area. As the city became familiar, the role the Arch would play in the project took shape. Referring to its unifying scale and its role as both a counterpoint to the city and a foil for the changes of season and weather, Meyerowtiz equivalent to Hokusai's Mount Fuji. From the over four hundred negatives exposed, a portrait of the city emerged. The selection and sequence of the images in this book was made by Meyerowitz working with designer Carl Zahn and me. The title is the photographer's.

For many Americans large parts of the nation's cities have become invisible, something to be negotiated between home and work, but not to be looked at. This book is an invitation and a challenge to see a specific city. It celebrates the quality of these photographs as art and the richness of the city as life. It reminds us that seeing is demanding, that unless we exercise our aesthetic curiosity we will remain blind to the beauty and meaning of our surroundings.

In his Nobel Prize lecture, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn declared that a nation that loses its memory loses its spiritual unity. St. Louis buried much of its physical past to raise a monument to the spirit and aspirations of Thomas Jefferson and the pioneers who built the original city and passed through it. Meyerowitz's photographs capture that constant collision between memory and aspiration, between past and present, that is contemporary St. Louis. He, as so many of those men and women whom the Arch memorializes, stayed only briefly, but this proud city left its mark on his vision and stimulated him to create some of his finest photographs.




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