Veteran photographer Joel Meyerowitz continues to evolve
If you want to find out what world-famous photographer Joel Meyerowitz has been up to for the past 50-some years you could start with the 352-page retrospective of his life’s work, “Where I Find Myself,” which was published last year on his 80th birthday.
Right off the bat, in the first chapter, he drops hints. He writes, “How did I get here? Living on a farm in Tuscany. Nearly 80 years old, and once again the force of photography provokes me to think about something I’ve never considered as being of interest to me.”
Tuscany? When did one of the world’s most accomplished street photographers, who is regularly mentioned in the same breath as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, and Garry Winogrand, leave his beloved New York City and move to Italy? And why?
I reached out to him, and he agreed to fill me in. “Call me,” he emailed. “Let’s chat.”
For those who are not intimately familiar with Meyerowitz’s career, a thumbnail sketch: acclaimed street photographer, a master of both 35mm and large-format cameras and color as well as black-and-white film, a couple of Guggenheim Fellowships, more than 350 exhibits, 30 books (including the mega best-seller “Cape Light,” which has sold more than 100,000 copies over 25 years), awards galore, and photographs in the permanent collections of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, the Art Institute of Chicago, and others worldwide. CNN has described him as “a color photography pioneer, The New York Times has called him “a virtuoso of his craft,” and Vogue dubbed him “a living legend.”
The Bronx-born photographer has been widely recognized for the variety of his subject matter, his flexibility in using different camera formats, and his willingness to experiment. As the photographer Teju Cole noted, “[Meyerowitz] can’t be pinned down to two or three styles. His oeuvre is as varied as any among contemporary photographic masters, but this is not a matter of restlessness. The variety is organically related to whatever he is exploring at any given point. He changes because he must.” Meyerowitz has produced award-winning work as varied as street photography, landscapes, stark but moving pictures of 9/11’s ground zero—where for eight months he was the site’s only official photographer—and, most recently in his long career, still lifes.
STILL LIFE POSES
“It’s been raining hard here in Tuscany,” says Meyerowitz when I reach him by telephone. “Do you know Siena? We are about 15 miles south of it. In a beautiful valley in a 200-plus-year-old barn someone has converted into a three-bedroom home.”
He explains that he and his wife, the British novelist Maggie Barrett, have visited Tuscany and elsewhere in Europe for years while they lived full-time in New York City. “About six years ago I realized Maggie had lived on my agenda for the last two decades, and I asked her to be captain of the ship and take us wherever she wanted. She chose Europe, and we packed our suitcases and planned to stay here in Tuscany for a year. It will soon be seven years.”
What keeps him there? Doesn’t he miss his hometown and especially the buzz and jazz of New York’s streets? The street life he once immersed himself in and became so famous for capturing? He has called Fifth Avenue “my boulevard” and “my favorite studio.” He pauses and explains that streets the world over are much different than when he began photographing them in the 1960s: “The texture of the street has changed. All over the world, people walk along with their ear buds plugged in, talking on the phone or listening to music. There’s no eye contact or curiosity; everyone is so self-engaged. That sensual charge you used to experience between people who would connect with one another on the street is largely missing. I still shoot on the street, but because I find it less engaging, this has freed me to photograph other things.”
For the past several years, “other things” have largely consisted of meticulously arranged still lifes. This work, a huge departure from his earlier photography, involves finding and arranging or “posing” simple, often discarded objects such as a battered flower pot, a dented brass tube, a rusted tin flask, until they come alive in a composition. He began this journey into still lifes a few years ago after becoming fascinated with and eventually photographing objects that the artists Paul Cézanne and Giorgio Morandi had painted or collected. He was granted access to their historically preserved studios and produced photography books on each artist’s objects.
“I didn’t know exactly what I was doing or where I was going when I started photographing these still lifes. But I trusted my intuition,” admits Meyerowitz. “I’m farther along now—four years into this—and I am discovering more and more. If you had asked me a decade or less ago whether or not I’d be interested in moving objects around on a tabletop and photographing them, I’d have laughed at you. But I’m now exploring things such as what kind of energy do these objects have, what kind of face do they put forward, what happens when I cluster four or five or six of them together? I’ve learned there is intrinsic beauty in ordinary things. You just need to meditate on them, move them around enough until some facet of their personality reveals itself.”
Still lifes are far removed from his street or landscape photography, but as he has done throughout his professional life, Meyerowitz has been attracted to venturing into the unknown.
“If you don’t grow, you die,” he tells me. There’s that, too.
“I’ve often said that anything you have done well is worth letting go of,” he continues as we talk about his lifelong tendency to move on and explore new photographic horizons. “I’ve learned that after investing six to eight years doing something, I’m anxious to move to another question, another aspect of photography.”
I ask him, “Like the way you moved from street photography, using your Leica to capture an instant, to using a large-format view camera taking landscapes on Cape Cod?”
“Exactly. Imagine you are climbing a hill,” he explains. “Your skills increase. You get to the top of the hill. From there you have a view of a crossroads up ahead. Which way do I go? You choose a new direction and you may be in freefall for a while. However, because you have learned your craft well, you can bring those skills along on your new journey. It’s the way I have evolved artistically.”
A few days before I spoke with Meyerowitz, he had spent much of the day, from 10 in the morning to four in the afternoon, working on a new still life. In a small workspace he set up a teatrino, a little theatre-like platform, to photograph his still lifes. “I’ll add objects, take them away, move them, then readjust them,” he says. He takes a picture of each composition so he has a record, which looks like a stop-action film, of the changes.
He laughs and says, “I came back a day later and moved them all around again. I still haven’t yet decided how to finalize this picture.”
While some may want to now label Meyerowitz a still-life photographer, he begs to differ. He does not want to be limited to one genre. “I’m just a photographer, one whose current passion may be photographing still lifes, but I call myself simply a photographer.”
Observers have compared his grouping of objects in his recent still lifes to some of this earlier street photography. “Well, I am trying to take the energy I saw on the street, the way people moved, how they clustered together, and am attempting to find that vitality with these objects,” he explains.
So there is a link to his early work and an arc to his incredibly long and varied career?
He answers by telling a story of a remarkable discovery he made when he was sorting through the more than 50,000 images in his archives. As he was looking though old boxes of his prints, he found a long-forgotten print among work he had done in the early 1960s.
“I had completely forgotten about it,” he remembers. “Completely! I was in shock.”
It was a sepia-toned still life.
“For years I had been telling people that I had never photographed a still life until recently. But I had taken this in 1964. It was test shot for an advertising campaign, and I had shot it in Garry Winogrand’s apartment because his place had better light than mine did back then.”
The still life included a selection of objects such as a childhood photo of Meyerowitz, a spinning top, seeds, dried fruit, flowers, a timepiece and more. On the back of the print was the notation, “The Nature of Time: First Still Life.”
He included the print on the last page of “Where I Find Myself” and enjoys the irony. “It was a shock to find it but I thought what better way to end the book than by saying, ‘Look, I am beginning where I am now but my earliest instincts were to put these odd objects together.'”
“You know,” he continues, “photography is like that. You never know where you are going to find yourself or when you will find an interesting moment. Your life could change in a split second. Just like that!”
RELATED: See a gallery of Joel Meyerowitz's street photography.
Rob Kiener is a writer in Vermont.