Saturday, 16 October 2010

Joel Meyerowitz

During my NCFE course I had to chose a photographer who I could use as an influence or reference to the project I undertook. Having chosen to document to the changing face of my local High Street and include an element of street photography I looked at several prominent Urban/Street photographers including Garry Winogrand, Joel Meyerowitz, Henri Cartier Bresson and Robert Frank.

I was mostly drawn to Joel Meyerowitz and subsequently purchased Joel Meyerowitz by Colin Westerbeck published by Phaidon. The article below is based upon an essay I had to write as part of my NCFE course;  I still admire Joel Meyerowitz and his work I feel my observations are still as valid today so worth inclusion on my learning blog. Another photographer I recently became interested in is Sam Abell and am looking to buy the book 'Life of a Photograph.'

Joel Meyerowitz

Many photographers choose to cover areas or places for example, Yosemite National Park by Ansell Adams or Hackney Wick by Stephen Gill. However I did not feel as if I could relate to their work. I wanted to include some street photography and looked at work by Robert Franks and Garry Winogrand. Again Garry Winogrand, whilst I could appreciate his art and craft, did not inspire me.

After searching through books, the internet and following a discussion with my tutor I decided to study closely the work of Joel Meyerowitz.

Born in New York in 1938, Joel Meyerowitz is an award-winning photographer (a two times Guggenheim fellow, recipient of both the NEA and NEH awards, and the Deutscher Fotobuchpreis) whose work has appeared in excess of 350 exhibitions worldwide.[1] He was originally a painter, working as an art director, but began photography in 1962 after working on location with Robert Frank.[2]

In an interview he recalls 'I suddenly realized that photography was something you did physically, and there was movement to it. You didn’t have to direct your models to stop, to hold that pose, or to move their heads a little bit to the right or left: all that was unnecessary… every time I heard the click of the Leica it seemed almost like a seizure in time, and I couldn’t get it out of my mind…I kept seeing moments frozen in time: people sticking out a hand for a taxi, or pausing momentarily to look into a shop window, suddenly seemed framed, and infinitesimally frozen for the camera. Innocent everyday non-incidents, became stop time moments; and by the time I got off the bus at 53rd Street I was so hooked that I went upstairs and quit my job.'[3]

Meyerowitz is considered a street photographer in the tradition of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank; however he works almost exclusively in colour.[4] This is what I like about his work. He has embraced the fact that time moves on, each era has its own values and can put its own stamp on the world. We no longer have to view photographic art in black and white, it can also been in colour and be a 'serious' and valid art form. He was greatly influenced and taught by Walker Evans. He read his book ‘American Photographs’ and it was Walker who showed him how to use a 35mm as well as a large format camera.[5] Another great influence was Robert Franks, his book ‘The Americans’ was a present from his previous boss, Harry Gordon and this made Meyerowitz see that he could be the still point of the picture rather than constantly moving, snapping away frantically. [6]

His work has been described as appearing choreographed whilst remaining wonderfully random. Meyerowitz uses bright, vivid colours in chaotic street scenes but the more we study the images the more we actually see a complementary and quite small colour palette.
He was instrumental in changing the attitude toward the use of colour photography. His first book, Cape Light, is considered a classic work of colour photography selling over 100,000 copies since its first publication.[7]

His images use limited colour and the clever application of light and shadows.In his street photography he uses a stark contrast of light, dark and shadows, playing with and challenging accepted rules of composition while still having a clear rule of thirds and vanishing point.
He asked himself the questions, can interesting pictures be made without depending on a central event to hold it together? What does colour mean in a photograph?  How much dissonance can a photograph contain and still be readable?[8]  

The more complex and open-ended he could make the image the more interesting it became to him. He had a belief that the street was a place where everything was important; the buildings near and far; the movement of people; the basic street furnishings of lampposts, phone boxes, hydrants, trees, signs, and shop windows.[9]

He admits that many of his photographs do not have a main point of interest and just ‘are’ taking his philosophy from John Szarkowsi whose ideas dealt with description. 

'Description was what photography did - first and foremost. You press the button and the camera describes what it's pointing at. That's all it really does. It's what you point it at, and how consistent you are, and how interesting you find subject matter that gives your work a dimension,and a shape,and a reason for being. But in the beginning, all the camera does is describe what is in front of you. You can't make it more than it is'[10] In describing one of his photographs taken in New York City he says 'None of it means anything, but it happened, and maybe that's enough' [11]

Meyerowitz started taking 35mm pictures that did not have a centre and moved to images that incorporated many things.[12] He felt that colour describes 'more things' and using colour film meant he had to step back which made him see everything not just the centre.[13] He has and does explore other subjects; his work is broad in scope, encompassing early black-and-white street photography, advertising work, and portraiture. All continue his love affair with colour and light. He is the author of 15 other books, including Aftermath: The World Trade Center Archive, Bystander: The History of Street Photography, and Tuscany: Inside the Light. [14]
In many of his images Meyerowitz tries to capture a picture within a picture and get something happening within each of the frames [15] other times he admits that timing is luck and all one can do is 'thank the one-eyed God who watches over photographers.'[16]

When planning a vacation on Cape Cod in 1976 he purchased a large format view camera, a Deardorff 8X 10 along with a tripod,[17]  which changed his way of taking photographs; it slowed him down, made him consider his subjects more. 

He tried to keep the camera like the 35mm - 'open and ready for use, rather than packed-up in a box, and I worked as quickly as I could.' He felt his experiences on the street were very instructive and that working with a large format also lead the way forward for new ideas with the 35mm. [18]
His World Trade Center Archive consists of over 8,000 images, and was created with the sponsorship of the Museum of the City of New York.  
Fighting against bureaucracy and the law not to photograph a crime scene he persisted because he realised that 'No photographs meant no visual record' [19]  

'Photography’s always been a very democratic medium. In a sense that the camera’s the same. It used to be 35mm, and now it’s digital. The camera’s the same, though - people pick it up and use it, like a fountain pen. Everybody writes something with it; a cheque, a story, a prescription. It’s writing. And photography’s the same - it’s democratic in that way. Everyone can use it, but not everyone makes art. I think what’s happened digitally, is that there’s been this huge explosion of access to imagery because you can print them at home. Or you can put them up on flickr and share pictures this way. So it both expands the market, and not necessarily makes it that much more interesting or better or artful, but it brings more and more people into it, so there’s a greater possibility of someone discovering their voice.' [21]

A more recent project brought another slight change in direction. In 2006 he was commissioned to take photographs of NYC parks; to explore the variety of marshes,swamplands, coastlines, forests and deep woods that many New Yorkers and outsiders do not investigate or are even aware exist..[22]

 'This project came right on the heels of Ground Zero, so it's nice to do another project that's not about disaster and rubble.'[23]  
As much as he was ready to embrace colour photography as a new medium Meyerowitz is also open to the new digital era, not so much with the actual taking of images where he sticks to film, but his post production and studio set up is totally digital.[20]

 He is willing to take risks, change direction and embrace new ideas and technologies; Joel Meyerowitz is a photographer of our time.

Westerbeck, C. (2005) Joel Meyerowitz City: London Publisher: Phaidon                    Reviewed on 08/04/2009                        Reviewed on 08/04/2009                                 
Reviewed on 08/04/2009                
Reviewed on 08/04/2009                                        Reviewed on 08/04/2009                                Reviewed on 08/04/2009

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[6] Refer to Westerbeck, C. (2005 introduction) Joel Meyerowitz
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[11] Refer to Westerbeck, C. (2005 page 34) Joel Meyerowitz
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[15] Refer to Westerbeck, C. (2005 page 9) Joel Meyerowitz
[16] Refer to Westerbeck, C. (2005 page 40) Joel Meyerowitz
[17] Refer to Westerbeck, C. (2005 introduction) Joel Meyerowitz
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