From Joel Meyerowitz (Phaidon 55 Series), "From Viewfinder To
View Camera" by
Joel Meyerowitz was an art director in the early 1960s, he would
look out his office window at the shoppers and tourists and businessmen
thronging Fifth Ave. in the afternoon, and he would have this
fantasy that one day he would just not come back from lunch.
He would stay out on the street where it was lively and light-filled,
instead of having to return to his drawing board and the endless
rows of fluorescent tubes. It happened almost that way, in fact,
when he finally screwed up his courage to do it. Ironically,
a work assignment that his boss Harry Gordon gave him was what
focused the impulse to leave enough for Meyerowitz to be able
to act on it. Far from being upset, Gordon encouraged him. As
a farewell gesture, he loaned Meyerowitz a Pentax camera he owned.
The initial desire to be out on the street rather than in an office had been
urgent, yet vague. It was little more than a yearning Meyerowitz had, an undertow
that he felt in the street and had to struggle to escape after lunch each day
in order to go back inside. But when Gordon sent him to observe a commercial
shoot that the photographer Robert Frank had been hired to do, everything suddenly
came into focus. Meyerowitz had never heard of Robert Frank, had no idea who
he was; but it's no overstatement to say that the experience of watching Frank
work that afternoon changed Meyerowitz's life.
The job at hand didn't take the two men out onto the street. It was to photograph
some teenage girls putting on make-up, a scene that was staged in an apartment
in section of Manhattan called Stuyvesant Town. Nonetheless, the way Frank
moved with the camera, weaving himself into the girls' activity with such a
quiet deftness and an economy of action that they hardly noticed he was there,
was astonishing to Meyerowitz. Meyerowitz had grown up with a very athletic
father and had himself been on the swim team at Ohio State as an undergraduate.
He at once recognized in Frank's approach to photography a co-ordination between
the mental and the physical that all athletes possess. He also recognized that
the field on which he himself could play this game was the street. He didn't
know Frank had already published a book of street photography that set the
world's record for this sport.
That afternoon was when Meyerowitz decided, as it were, not to return
to the office after lunch. He had found in photography his calling
in life, his vocation.
He didn't have any idea where it would take him, but he did know that he didn't
want to leave art directing just so he could become a commercial photographer.
That would merely have led him back to the office again through another door.
At first he was very strict with himself about avoiding any project that smacked
of being an editorial assignment. He feared that if he picked a particular
subject and approached it the way a photographer working on a feature spread
did, it would be, as he puts it, "like wearing blinders." He wanted
to take it all in, to be ready to respond to whatever chanced to appear in
his viewfinder, no matter how far out on the edges of the frame it might be.
That was his notion of how to learn photography, and he didn't want anything
to limit the infinite possibilities he felt the medium held for him.
The first year that he was out on the street, he tried to work in this completely
open-ended way. But then in June of 1963, he permitted himself to have a kind
of self-assigned project for the first time. This was to return to the resorts
up in the Catskill Mountains where he had worked summers as a waiter when he
was in college. He knew that the life there around the pools and the shuffle-board
courts or in the lobbies and lounges of the hotels would provide him with the
same rich material for pictures that he had been seeking out on the streets
of New York. One picture from that trip is particularly revealing, for in it
we see the sensibility that would inform all of his work emerging clearly.
The central subject is a woman in a slightly ridiculous outfit talking
on the telephone. Like the cliché figure who has too much
to drink at the party, she seems to be wearing a lampshade on her
head. This sort of hotel frequently
offers special rates--in mid-week, when things are slow, your family can sometimes
get two rooms for the price of one--and Meyerowitz's photograph is an even
better deal. It contains three pictures in one. To one side of the woman on
the phone, who is framed within an entryway, there is a couple in a separate
frame that's hung on the wall; on the other side, making a gesture that complements
the woman's, is a man also framed between two pillars in the next room.
The photograph is given a certain harmony and coherence not only by the blocking
of the space and the placement of the figures in it, but by the emotion that
the photographer expends on the image. We might expect that an ex-art director
would know how to handle the graphic qualities of the photograph, but there
is something more important than that here. There is a kind of balance to the
feelings that the picture evokes about its subjects. Photography had liberated
Meyerowitz not only from the work-a-day life of the art director, but from
middle-class, middle-brow Jewish culture of the sort found in the Catskills
as well. His picture is ironic; he now has a more sophisticated point of view
than the subjects who stand before him. Yet the irony is a gentle one. The
picture also shows us his affection for these people, this life.
An unmistakable sensibility is apparent here that is unique to Meyerowitz's
work. Where Robert Frank had seen the tragedy of American life, Meyerowitz
has seen a festive comedy. Where Garry Winogrand, Meyerowitz's colleague of
these years, took an abrasive, confrontational view, Meyerowitz has taken a
sweet, accepting one. While Lee Friedlander has had a deadpan sense of humor,
Meyerowitz has laughed out loud in the good-natured hope that we, too, will
find life as he sees it funny. In one sense, Meyerowitz never looked back once
he had left the office on that summer afternoon in 1962. In another way, however,
he brought with him everything that his past contained, beginning with his
boyhood in the Bronx. He was definitely looking back, fondly, when he made
this picture in the Catskills in 1963.
A reason that Harry Gordon had responded sympathetically when Meyerowitz
announced he was quitting his job was that Gordon had been thinking
about doing the same
thing. At the end of 1962, six months after Meyerowitz quit, Gordon resigned
to go to Spain and paint, and as a farewell this time he presented Meyerowitz
with an outright gift even more valuable to him than the loan of that first
camera had been. He gave Meyerowitz his copy of The Americans, the book that
Robert Frank had published in the late 1950s. Watching Frank work had been
a sudden inspiration, a jolt of electricity that had propelled Meyerowitz into
photography. Looking at Frank's book--"this deep, dark poem about America," as
Meyerowitz calls it--moved the younger photographer in a different way.
As Meyerowitz paged through this volume of black and white photographs again
and again and again in the coming years, Frank's work had a gradual but even
more profound effect on him than had Frank himself. In his pictures in New
York, Meyerowitz had been lunging and plunging into crowds, experimenting with
extreme angles, looking down, looking up from the level at which a child trapped
in the crush of people sees the world. Such muscularity is a way that a young
photographer tries to supply his pictures with the dynamic quality he wants
them to have. He is pointing out the subject, emphatically. He is provoking
whatever his eye selects into becoming a subject.
But under the tutelage that Frank's book provided, Meyerowitz now began to
see that there was another way to go about making pictures. He saw that rather
than being the whirling dervish, Frank was often the still point of the picture,
the eye of the storm. He was letting everything revolve furiously around him
while he was calm, even reflective, in the middle. He was taking in the event
instead of being it. The standpoint of Meyerowitz's own pictures began to change
as a result. He straightened up and stepped back a few paces. It was a way
to get your balance before you took the picture, just as the mixture of mockery
and sentimentality in the Catskills photograph was a way to distribute evenly
the emotional weight of the image.
From Frank's book Meyerowitz also learned that the question of whether to give
yourself editorial assignments or not was a false issue. The assignment you
had to pursue was: everything. Frank's book was as tight and focussed in its
subject matter as could be. Yet that subject was all of America. It was not
just blacks in the South or politicians in Chicago, or Jews in the Catskills.
It was all of those, and more. A photographer had to look at the entire civilization
of his time with the same openness he had to every corner of the frame when
he put the viewfinder to his eye. To take the large view of the world that
Frank's book suggested, Meyerowitz saw that you needed the kind of Wanderjahre
Frank had had to travel America shooting the pictures.
Meyerowitz and his wife had already hitch-hiked to Mexico before receiving
the gift of Frank's book at the end of 1962, and they would hitch through the
South in 1963. A longer trip through the West came in 1964, followed by an
entire year in Europe in 1966 - 1967. As an American traveling extensively
through Europe, Meyerowitz was emulating Frank, the European who had explored
America. The truth was, though, that the European trip was the beginning of
a move beyond Frank's precedent toward a vision that was more decisively Meyerowitz's
own. During the year and a half leading up to Europe, Meyerowitz had worked
predominantly in black and white, as Frank did exclusively; but on his trip
Meyerowitz shot almost as much color as black and white. Never again would
he return to the concentration on black and white that he had known just before
The alternation of color with black and white differentiates Meyerowitz's work
not only from Frank's, but from that of more nearly contemporary 35 mm photographers
like Winogrand and Friedlander. There were periods in the 1960s when Meyerowitz
carried two cameras-one loaded with 400 ASA black and white print film, the
other with 25 ASA color slide film-and sometimes managed to get the same pictures
in both processes. He had actually begun shooting in color. Right after he
quit his job, he linked up with Tony Ray-Jones, who had been a designer at
CBS and, like Meyerowitz, had quit in order to photograph. Both of them shot
in color in their early days on the street.
They would go together to Times Square because even at night the light, especially
under the movie marquees, was bright enough that you could use the relatively
slow color film without a flash. They also worked the crowd at the parades
that were held somewhere in New York almost every week. Photographing along
a parade route was an especially effective way to overcome your shyness and
fear of intruding on the lives of others. You learned how to be bold, but invisible.
Meyerowitz and Ray-Jones would critique each other's work by projecting the
slides at close range so that they were roughly 20 x 24 inches on the screen,
about the size of a large photographic print of that time. This had led them
to a desire to have a real print that they could hold in their hands after
doing the processing and printing for themselves. With their limited resources
and experience, this total control they craved from the click of the shutter
to the final print was possible only with black and white film, so they switched
to that. Still, Meyerowitz never discontinued the color work altogether, and
eventually it came to dominate his career. Practicing both color and black
and white at the same time was yet another way that Meyerowitz tested his agility
as a photographer. Black and white was a cool process, suitable to terse ironies,
even to alienation, and to art as then defined in photography. Color was warm,
lush, celebratory, enthusiastic. Both were needed if the fullness of Meyerowitz's
personality were to come out in his pictures.
How Meyerowitz's commitment to color affected his development becomes
apparent if you compare some of the black and white images of the
mid-1960s to the color
street photography done a decade later. The earlier pictures have the classic
street photographer's habit of keying on incident. The forlorn woman crouches
in her yard. The endless line the man is trying to reel in gets into a tangle
as big as he is. The husband points in one direction at just the moment that
his wife points somewhere else. Etc. Each of these pictures is a catch, a witty
comment on human foibles that is a photographic equivalent to a New Yorker
cartoon. The color photography from the mid-1970s mostly eschews such incident
for a more over-all type of image, one whose subject is the edge-to-edge complexity
and density of everyday life on the New York streets. Meyerowitz felt that
making such eventless pictures-"field photographs" he called them-was
his first completely original contribution to the tradition of street photography.
This is not to say that action pictures cannot be made in color nor
field pictures in black and white. The first pictures he took were
attempts to capture in
color gestures or chance juxtapositions of people in motion, and there are
early black and white pictures that are responses to the whole field of vision-to
atmosphere and general effects-rather than a single, galvanizing event. But
it was the descriptive powers of color that drew Meyerowitz on and made him
want a new kind of picture in which the color alone would be a sufficient event.
The prospect of this had first dawned on him as a result of a very empty, still
photograph of a courtyard he had taken at Versailles in 1966. Every brick in
the façade could be distinguished. There was a particularity to the
photographic description that only color made possible.
When he began trying to exploit this potential of color transparency
film in the 1970s, Meyerowitz had a professional lab make dye transfers
from his slides
because they were the one type of print that could bring out the level of detail
he wanted. Since 1971, he had been printing color negative film himself, but
the graininess of the results made them unsatisfactory. While the dyes definitely
represented an advance in quality, they could only be made commercially by
a lab, and the expense made it impossible for him to have more than a fraction
of the work he was producing done this way. Next he went to a hand camera with
a larger format than 35 mma Fujica 6 x 9 cmbecause the oversized
negative enhanced the detail he could get in the prints that he made himself.
The drawback here was that the lenses were so slow he felt he would have to
adopt a tripod. None of these alternatives produced the break-through he was
looking for. All felt like compromises in the end.
If he was going to have to use a tripod, he reasoned, he might as well go all
the way to the 8 x 10 inch view camera. The first one Meyerowitz acquired was
a brass-bound mahogany model that had been manufactured by the Deardorff Company
the year he was born, 1938. He bought this camera in 1976; and he decided to
summer on Cape Cod that year partly because his kids needed somewhere to vacation
in which they could find playmates, but also because he thought the Cape would
be a good place to try out the new camera. With its empty dune scapes, flat,
surfless bay, narcotic summer days and tiny figures scattered on remote beaches,
Cape Cod was about as far from the New York streets as was imaginable. It lent
itself to the slower, more meditative style of a big camera. Even amidst the
swarming figures at a party, there was likely to be at least one subject whom
the effects of sun, sea and air had stilled sufficiently for the view camera
to be able to fix her on the negative.
Nonetheless, different as both the place and the equipment were from what Meyerowitz
was used to, the new work was still informed by the street photography. The
view camera seizes on the single motionless figure at the party much as the
hand camera had on the child's face in the crush of the crowd in New York.
In like manner, the interior of an old Cape house open to the afternoon light
is partitioned by the camera the way the scene at the resort in the Catskills
had been earlier. One photograph taken on the Cape might even be considered
as a prototype or template for all street photographs, for in it a carefully
composed scene is jolted to life by a streak of lightning that, touching down
on the bay beyond the veranda, looks as if it is arcing between two points
on the porch column. This is what street photographers always do: they frame
the view knowing that at just this moment, lightning is about to strike. The
shadowy figure passing through the courtyard in Spain in 1966, the boy jumping
from the bridge in Central Park in 1969 and numerous other sudden intrusions
in Meyerowitz's earlier work are all lightning bolts in human form.
When he was in the earliest stages of his work on the Cape, before any of the
pictures had been published, a chance meeting Meyerowitz had with the director
of the St. Louis Art Museum led him back to the city streets again. The museum's
director, Jim Wood, who has since become a good friend of Meyerowitz's, had
grown up in Boston and knew the Cape well enough to comprehend the extraordinary
sense of place that the photographer could instill in pictures made with his
large-format camera. Would Meyerowitz be interested in coming to St. Louis
to photograph the Arch on the riverfront designed by Eero Saarinen that had
become the city's most famous landmark? Meyerowitz jumped at the chance because
he saw that the Arch was St. Louis's lightning bolt. One caught glimpses of
it from all over the city as it swooped to earth between buildings or flashed
sunlight off of its steel skin.
Since the late 1970s, Meyerowitz's career has been an alternation
the Cape, where he continues to spend summersand city projects that have
often come to him as commissions. There has been as much variety to the venues
in which he has worked as there was in the early phase of his career when he
was bouncing from Mexico to the United States to Europe in his quest for pictures.
The one constant that runs through all this more recent work is having been
done with the view camera in color. The view camera has allowed Meyerowitz's
hunger for color, which he experienced with the very first pictures he made,
to be satisfied at last. It has also given him a way to resolve the most challenging
artistic problem of his career.
Photography gains its significance as an art form from the fact that, as a
mass medium, it is a vulgar and debased means of expression. Those who would
make photography into art have constantly had to redeem the medium from itself.
Nowhere has this aesthetic problem been more acute than in the case of color
photography, which is, par excellence, the medium of advertising, kitsch, and
pop culture. This is why photographers committed to art long eschewed color.
But there came a point where color was so nearly ubiquitous in our culture
that sticking to black and white alone began to seem like mere nostalgia, an
attempt to escape the mainstream of photography rather than transform it. That
point arrived in the mid-1970s when a handful of American photographers working
independently began to attack the problem of color head-on.
One strategy, which emerged in the work of photographers ranging from Bill
Eggleston to Stephen Shore, was to shift the colors themselves away from the
standard that color photography had established. Eggleston's color was often
garish, while Shore's tended to be wan, pallid, almost neutralized at times.
Each photographer's work was a protest against the richness of color that commercial
photography exploited. Meyerowitz's approach has been the opposite: he embraced
the richness inherent in color film and relied upon his sense of humor to make
such material serve his own purposes. He understood well how commercialism
manipulates our response to color, for he had done free-lance advertising work
himself when he had to in order to support his family. But in his personal
work on Cape Cod he devised ways to undermine with wit the calendar-art pictorialism
to which his subject might otherwise lend itself.
Unlike the street photographers in New York in the early 1960s who all knew
one another and even went out shooting together, the color view camera photographers
who came to prominence in the late 1970s each worked alone. There was no one
who then had a personal relationship with Meyerowitz similar to Garry Winogrand's
earlier. All the same, Shore and Winogrand are parallel figures in one regard.
The power of Winogrand's photographs is raw and speechless, an act of pure
instinct. They cry out on life; they are a grunt of both pleasure and disbelief
at what he saw. Shore is also a taciturn person by nature. Different as he
is in temperament from someone as hyperkinetic as Winogrand, Shore's photography
is comparable in its muteness, and thus as different from Meyerowitz's work
as Winogrand's was. Meyerowitz's work has, by contrast to both of theirs, a
smartness that is almost literary in nature.
Meyerowitz has remarked on what he calls his tendency to "babble" when
he is photographing. He means that in the throes of shooting the pictures,
he often kibitzes on his own work. He focuses his mind by talking to himself,
keeping up a running commentary on what he sees. Like most of the work habits
that make his photography distinct, this one developed early on. He remembers
that while taking an early black and white picture of a woman under a hair
drier in a New York beauty parlor, he thought to himself that she looked "as
if she were being swallowed by a giant insect." From that picture to many
of those he has made with the view camera, his photography has always been
unmistakably articulate. We feel that his pictures speak to us. Through them
he has been able to verbalize his feelings about life, its craziness, and the
intense joy he takes in the human comedy.
There are other photographers doing pictures in color with the view
camera who have used their sense of humor as a foil for the lushness
of the medium
in which they work. Joel Sternfeld, whose view camera photography began to
appear a few years after Meyerowitz's, is the most obvious case in point. But
Meyerowitz remains the only figure who has truly integrated credentials as
a street photographer into a career working with a view camera in color. Cape
Cod provides the key to all the other projects that have followed from it,
for there he found a mixture of natural beauty with a social scene as filled
with affectation and artifice as any big city could be. The Cape combines the
primeval and the preposterous in a way that has allowed Meyerowitz to give
full vent to a potential he had felt in photography only one other timeduring
that formative period when he was first out on the street in New York with
the Pentax camera that Harry Gordon had loaned him.