Joel Meyerowitz, who currently has a show at Jackson Fine Art, chatted with ACP last week about the nature of his work.
From the energetic bustle of NYC’s Fifth Avenue in the 60s, to the dusty-colored evenings of Truro, Massachusetts in the 70s, and most recently the rolling hills of Tuscany, Mr. Meyerowitz artfully presents the world as he sees it. His most recent book, Aftermath charts nine months of clean-up at Ground Zero, a photographic project that has become part of the permanent record of the City of New York. Simply, Mr. Meyerowitz’s accomplishments are legendary. Many thanks to the Meyerowitz Studio & Jackson Fine Art for setting-up this interview, and to Joel Meyerowitz for his time.
ACP: You have your Cape Light era pictures up at Jackson Fine Art, and I’m curious as to what the transition was like for you, from your earlier street work to the large format photographs on Cape Cod? Were you finding a limitation in the 35mm work? Did you want to step back, take more in, and describe as clearly as possible what you were seeing?
MEYEROWITZ: That’s exactly, precisely what it was for me. In that particular period of the 70s, when John Szarkowski was at MOMA, some of the underlying themes of his philosophy 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’s in front of you. You can’t make it more than it is; it just is what it is.
I think my generation probably were influenced by this kind of thinking and expression, so I started making 35mm pictures that let go of the subject in the center of the picture, and I moved to a more overall take on things. And that led me, when I saw the space in that kind of photograph, to the view camera. I could make pictures of very deep space, and have incredible resolution all through the space. So I talked myself into working with the large format camera, to gain this description, but of course I lost a certain amount of mobility in the exchange. The hybrid was interesting to me, because I 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. So, that, in a sense is what the difference is, and I’ve always felt that all the years I spent out on the street were very instructive to me, when I became a large format photographer. Incredibly helpful really. And then I think that the work I did with the large format also illuminated for me new options with the 35mm. It re-seeded itself, it nourished me in a new way.
ACP: In looking at your work, it’s not that you made the transition and stayed with one or stuck with another, or disavowed what you did in the past — there’s a very fluid way of working with these multiple formats, and that’s why I was asking what that relationship has been for you.
MEYEROWITZ: Yeah, what’s interesting about it is if you think about music, 35mm is jazz. So, the riff, the spontaneous and immediate riff on something that comes out of nowhere is what that instrument does well, and the view camera is a more classical approach. It’s slower, more meditative, it has a different way of showing its content, and yet you can be a jazz musician and play classically, like Keith Jarrett, or you can be a classical musician and love jazz. In a way, each form illuminates a quality in the other one, and so for me, it opens me up to be a more meditative and reflective photographer, rather than someone who’s working out of pure intuition and immediacy. So, I liked the additional knowledge of slowing down. I didn’t know about slowing down when I was only working in 35mm, but once I worked with the other camera, I learned something about stillness and spaciousness and contemplativeness, so those things have reinforced themselves and given me a new way of considering things. And it’s also a language. It feels as if I enlarged my capacity for language by changing tools.
ACP: You’ve been talking about your artistic relationship to the tool that you chose to express yourself; have you found that your styles of working have influenced your personality as well, or have you been personally in the center, and worked with both ends of the spectrum – the quick and fast of the 35mm on one end, and the slow, meditative view camera on the other?
MEYEROWITZ: I think it has changed me, for the better. I’ve noticed over the years (I’ve been shooting the view camera now for thirty-one years) and I’ve had many people say to me, in response to the view camera work, how Buddhist it is, how meditative it is, and often, if I’ve given a public lecture, frequently, someone will come to me afterwards and say, “are you a practicing Buddhist?” and I realize, in some ways, whatever has happened to me through using that camera, and its slowness, and the studied, reflective quality of it, has quieted me down. I still have some of my street humor. I can feel it come out when I’m in front of an audience and doing whatever I do, I’m always having a good time, but I can also feel this other side – and I realize that yeah, I am – and maybe we’re all this way, that we have various aspects of our personality, but we don’t develop them always. Because something doesn’t call us to explore that particular area. So I feel lucky that I stumbled through this doorway of description, and landed on the other side where there was this meadow of contemplation in it. So on one hand, there’s the street, with all this noise and jazz and energy, and on the other side, there’s this long walk. And I’m in the long walk space now, in ways I didn’t know I could have been.
ACP: Your current show that’s up at Jackson Fine Art. As we did the walk-thru, we were talking a lot about the archival pigment printing of the pictures that are up there. On the camera and enthusiast side of things, digital is definitely remaking photography in many ways. I’m curious what you see as happening in photography in terms of interest, and the art market that didn’t exist for photography back in the 60s has exploded – where do you see all of these things going?
MEYEROWITZ: 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 check, 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.
ACP: There’s definitely an explosion, not just of digital, but in these little subsections, of even something like street photography, people are looking backwards and seeing what’s been done, and looking ahead and trying to figure out how they can go about making work that knows its past and moves forward. There’s a lot of it going on right now, it’s an exciting time.
MEYEROWITZ: Yeah, it is! It’s been enriched. The potential for more interesting artists, just like it is for filmmakers – if you can put together a movie with iMovie and your little digital camera, you might discover the meaning of film for the next generation, and make a contribution toward pushing the language along. And the same is true about photography. It both lowers the quality on one hand, and it expands the universe of workers, especially because you can make prints and slideshows and all that stuff! It used to be that you had to borrow a slide projector, because not everyone owned a slide projector.
ACP: You were talking about cameras and pictures as a language, and being able to say things and shape them. In your own work, are you more interested in saying things that might be poems, or saying things that might tell stories? Where do you fall on that?
MEYEROWITZ: I don’t fall into the story realm myself, because I don’t think in storylines. I think that photography is probably closest to poetry and music. I see very often a kind of musical notation when I put pictures together. I think of it in some kind of lyrical form. And I think individual pictures are closer to poetry in the way they’re read and the meaning they shed. I’ve always found them to be non-narrative objects. That’s why they always had to have captions underneath them. Nobody could figure out what was going on.
ACP: Or that’s why “the run” can come together, because you can’t have a run of things that immediately make sense on their own, necessarily.
MEYEROWITZ: Right. So they’re little fragments of poetry and they make you feel a certain way, and you put ten of them together, by the time you get to the tenth one, you have a dark emotion, or you feel lighthearted, or you feel something’s working.
All images above © Joel Meyerowitz