Foreword from Cape Light, conversational interviews with Bruce MacDonald, dean of the Museum School, July 22-26, 1977:


July 25, On the Beach

BM: Where did you find the confidence to experience your feelings in the street and to make pictures there? How did it start?

JM: My father's a natural comic. He played in vaudeville, imitating Chaplin; he was also a boxer. Very fast with his hands—he's a small man with a lot of those small man's needs about protecting yourself. At an early age he taught me to box—took me down to the basement, showed me how to punch the bag, made me put my "dukes up," taught me some lessons of the street—taught me to watch. He said to me, "You ever get in a fight, keep your eyes open, most street fighters are going to telegraph what it is they're going to do, because they don't know how to box. There's no art. They're going to flare with their hands." He said, "You protect your head, feint with your body, and when they drop their guard—boom! Knock 'em down." It was true, growing up in the Bronx where there were street gangs and the like, you had to know these things. If he hadn't told me then, I wouldn't have known what to do, and I would have run all my life. This way I understood the street. I could take care of myself, maybe take a licking here and there, but I knew from my father that things would be all right. It's always good to have a model like that. Imagine—knowing that they were going to tell me what they were going to do—isn't that terrific!

I lived in a ground-floor apartment, so watching the street was great entertainment. After all, the whole of street life in the neighborhoods was based on strut and gesture. Everybody wanted to be a comic or a hero or a tough guy. Remember what happened when somebody walked by with what used to be called an "affliction"? There was always one guy who peeled off out of the crowd and walked up the street doing a crazy imitation, turning around over his shoulder, showing off to the gang, like Huntz Hall to Leo Gorcey and the Dead-End Kids. There is a point-counter-point with street humor. I was it in the Marx Brothers with their glances, imitations, and double takes all the time. I loved that. What comes to mind now is that I remember my father telling me about people telegraphing and how to feint and dodge and move with them. I feel that's what street shooting is like. Street photography, the kind that I practice, is about reading the signals that people are sending. I play with that. I have a feeling that part of my sense of humor, my timing, my attitude on the street was formed by watching those movies and learning those basic words of awareness from my father.

BM: What other influences come from childhood?

JM: The way you perceive the world. My sense of time. Think about the serialized imagery in comic books, the way things continue from box to box. Those weren't paintings that were stated whole in one frame. Every generation has a different resource. Serialized movies and radio programs were part of ours; they left us hanging. I have a similar feeling about the episodic quality of my street photographs. They reflect a picaresque adventure that's unfolding for me. I go out with no expectations. I go out to be in the place that I'm in and to be as fully committed to being open to it as I can be, with no prejudgments or preconceptions of what I'm going to find. I photograph to see what I'm interested in.


July 22, On the Deck

BM: I've watched you work. Sometimes with a small camera you work so fast that you can't entirely understand the situation in front of you, and the people being photographed don't have time to react to the camera. You don't bruise the situation. JM: The fact that the machine works at a 1000th of a second allows you to gesture at things radically, even before you know them. You use the speed of the camera as a property. If you've got 1000th of a second. Then you should use it and see what it's like to work in that zone of high speed—which means you can release yourself in a gestural way at a 1000th of a second. Sometimes I literally plunge into it, throw my whole body into the subject, the crowd moves away, and people spill into the frame from the other side. I move the image off center, somehow turn away. I want to engage something that's only peripheral in my eye. I fill the frame. And then when I get the picture back, I get what a full-blown gesture at a 1000th of a second sees.

BM: What do you mean by turn away?

JM: I feel that most of street photography coming out of Cartier-Bresson was aimed at locating an event in space with the camera, and singling it out, sometimes pointing at it by juxtaposing it to something else. But you now exactly what it is that's being photographed. You know what the intention and the accomplishment of the photographer is. After years of doing that and getting faster at that kind of location, I began to feel like a visual athlete—making sensational catches, but having less to learn from. The more in touch I became with what I personally was interested in, the more I wanted to loosen up the frame. I had a sense of desperation.

About that same time when I was coming to consciousness—this was in the sixties—Fellini was my hero. Fellini taught me something else—a kind of organized chaos—his willingness to see everything come in front of the lens, to give it a certain amount of time and then turn away from it. That's the turning away I learned about. Just think about the elaborate preparations he goes through to set up certain scenes—filled with grotesques, filled with motion, people moving toward and away from the camera. As they come by, he just makes a pass, and they're off the screen in a split second. He wastes them. He knows, and trusts, that you will see it and feel the jolt as it crosses your vision and your awareness. He doesn't have to hold on something for a great period of time for it to register. He doesn't have to pummel you with what you see. He can just tantalize you with it, pass it in front of you, make you feel it. And I saw that, instead of making a picture of it, you can turn away from it and photograph something nearby, and include that in it, not making it the central subject of the picture. You can see what's happening around it and, by its energy, it will draw people to looking at it. I was willing to take the risk. I wanted to make the frame alive—a place where you have to search to see.


July 23, On the Porch, During Lunch

BM: Why are you using color?

JM: Because it describes more things.

BM: What do you mean by description?

JM: When I say description, I don't only mean mere fact and the cold accounting of things in the frame. I really mean the sensation I get from things—their surface and color—my memory of them in other conditions as well as their connotative qualities. Color plays itself out along a richer band of feelings—more wavelengths, more radiance, more sensation.

I wanted to se more and experience more feelings from a photograph, and I wanted bigger images that would describe things more fully, more cohesively. Slow-speed color film provided that.

BM: Are you talking about the small camera or the big camera?

JM: It was the 35-mm, although with a growing understanding of the materials and the logic of process, if you will, I arrived at the 8" x 10". It seems to me that my strongest desires are to tell, to tell fully, roundly, sometimes too much. The Cape seemed the right place to begin. It's so different—so opposite from the street. The work I did last summer taught me a lot. I felt there was even more here.

BM: What do you hope for when you say the work teaches you?

JM: Well, you hope that by working-working out, working toward that—you'll produce an opening, you'll stumble through your senses upon a photograph that's instructive—a doorway—something more than just beautiful, or well-made, or a combination of those elements that are photographically interesting—something that you can't quite handle that possesses you, something simple and visible but filled with mystery and promise—the mystery of "How did I know to make that?"—and the promise of a new understanding of photography and something about yourself.

These photographs are often the least beautiful: spare, sometimes empty of qualities that are more easily celebrated. One makes the other photographs on the way to these rare, irresistible images that claim your deepest attention. The trick is not to be seduced by the beautiful but to struggle against accomplishment and push toward something more personal. Shared beauty is not enough. One wants to go beyond those limits, not for the sake of invention, but for knowing.

BM: What is the difference between light in black and white and light in color photography? Do you relate differently to the light?

JM: The fact is that color film appears to be responsive to the full spectrum of visible light while black and white reduces the spectrum to a very narrow wavelength. This stimulates in the user of each material a different set of responses. A color photograph gives you a chance to study and remember how things look and feel in color. It enables you to have feelings along the full wavelength of the spectrum, to retrieve emotions that were perhaps bred in you from infancy—from the warmth and pinkness of your mother's breast, the loving brown of you puppy's face, and the friendly yellow of your pudding. Color is always part of experience. Grass is green, not gray; flesh is color, not gray. Black and white is a very cultivated response.

BM: What you're saying is that black and white translates light from all of the hues into tone, and there is no way to tell the light reflected from a red from the light reflected from a black?

JM: Close. It expresses light as a matter of intensity. There's no meaning attached to the light. --- When we look at photographs that are in color, it's like looking at the world. Things in color mean something to us. Maybe we can't even verbalize what they mean. But as I look out this doorway right now, I encounter a black door—quite beautiful, that door—against a gray screen, against green trees, against a silvery sky, right now against that blue rug on that amber floor. My mend's eye trips as I plunge through that space.


July 23, Looking at Photographs                           

BM: there is a sense in which, looking at these photographs, knowing your former work, I've had a feeling that less is more. These are photographs of very little: a doorway, a window, a tree, a beach, a lifeguard stand, a picket fence, a field. As a black and white photographer you wouldn't have stopped in those places. I used to look at your other photographs and instantly see what they were. I look at these photographs for a long time and I feel more. Not because I am searching for a meaning, but because there's so much in them to see. What am I looking at? Am I looking at juxtaposition of colors? Am I looking at the way things translate into a photograph? I am seeing something I never saw before. I don't always know exactly what it is, but it has been refined into something very pure--a pure act of vision about how rue colors relate to each other, about how true colors relate to each other, about how each color had meaning in their former life. You bring them together, and they relate to each other in some way. Talk to that. Less becomes more because these photographs are in color. In some sense, now they become sublime.

JM: What are we all trying to get to in the making of anything? We're trying to get to ourselves. What I want is more of my feelings and less of my thoughts. I want to be clear. I see the photograph as a chip of experience itself. It exists in the world. It is not a comment on the world. In a photograph you don't look for, you look at! It's close to the thing itself. It's like an excitation. I want the experience that I am sensitive to to pass back into the world, fixed by chemistry and light to be reexamined. That's what all photographs are about—looking at things hard. I want to find an instrument with the fidelity of its own technology to carry my feelings in a true, clear, and simple way. That's how I want to think about less is more.

BM: As I look at the photographs, there's a kind of tension because when I first look at them I see gas stations and houses and rubber rafts and things that I think I've seen before. But as I continue to look at them, I suddenly realize that I have never seen anything like this before, that, in fact, my eye is probably incapable of seeing something like this. And there's a kind of tension between recognition and the totally unfamiliar, in terms of the visual process itself.

JM: John Szarkowski has used the expression "nominal subject matter." I think that's perfect for my behavior here. I'm not really interested in gas stations or anything about gas stations. This happens to be an excuse for seeing. I don't care if it was a gas station or if this is a rubber raft or if this is a crappy little house. That's not my subject! This gas station isn't my subject. It's an excuse for a place to make a photograph. It's a place to stop and to be dazzled by. It's the quantity of information that's been revealed by the placement of these things together, by my happening to pass at that given moment when the sky turned orange and this thing turned green. It gives me a theater to act in for a few moments, to have perceptions in. why is it that the best poetry comes out of the most ordinary circumstances? You don't have to have extreme beauty to write beautifully. You don't have to have grand subject matter. I don't need the Parthenon. This little dinky bungalow is my Parthenon. It has scale; it has color; it has presence; it is real: I'm not trying to work with grandeur. I'm trying to work with ordinariness. I'm trying to find what spirits me away. Ordinary things. --- What did I say when I drove by those bungalows—something about the lives lived in them?

BM: They had a kind of vitality themselves.

JM: There was some sort of sadness, knowing what went on in them. But not in a social way, in a way that gave them that life. Every life that passed through there filled up the floor boards, the siding with its history. You could feel it as you drove by. Those little bungalows had that feeling for me. Triangular boxes of sensations, boxes of memories. It's poignant. That little doorway with this piece of blue resting against it is poignant. I'm sure that Edward Hopper, painting here on the Cape, saw things revealed in this light with that same kind of poignancy because they're painted so lovingly! His subjects are small, nominal subjects. But the feelings are large and have a lasting quality to them, which is why they speak so clearly, without sentiment.

JM: I put myself here in Provincetown, a place where I wouldn't have the normal sensations that I have year round in big cities. I'm perfectly happy here just going out and standing in the stream of this place and feeling. I feel Aeolian. I'm a harp; the wind is blowing through me; it's making music, on its own. I think that that's the most that anybody could ask for in the capture of their experience. It should just waft through you—a fragrance—effortless. You should be in tune in such a way that there's no resistance. Whether you're making images, poetry, painting, music, or love, you should be totally enraptured by that, by the experience itself. That's what it is about—the location of subject, it's about passage of the experience itself, in its wholeness, through you, back into the world, selected out by your native instincts. That's what artists do. They separate their experience from the totality, from raw experience, and it's the quality of their selections that makes them visible to the world.

What is the art experience about? Really, I'm not interested in making "Art" at all. I never, ever, think about it. To say the word "Art," it's almost like a curse on art. I do know that I want to try to get closer to myself. The older I get, the more indications I have about what it is to get closer to yourself. You try less hard. I just want to be.

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