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 Archan 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
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
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.