You are on page 1of 5

©ARIEL MEYEROWITZ

Veteran photographer
Joel Meyerowitz
continues to evolve

BY ROBERT KIENER

THE
NATURE TIME OF
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 pub-
lished 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

On ppmag.com
How Meyerowitz covered post-9/11
ground zero

IMAGES ©JOEL MEYEROWITZ


ppmag.com/groundzero

49
48
City and move to Italy? And why? photography pioneer, The New York Times the site’s only official photographer—and,
I reached out to him, and he agreed to fill has called him “a virtuoso of his craft” and most recently in his long career, still lifes.
me in. “Call me,” he emailed. “Let’s chat.” Vogue dubbed him “a living legend.”
The Bronx-born photographer has been STILL LIFE POSES
PERSPECTIVE widely recognized for the variety of his sub- “It’s been raining hard here in Tuscany,” says
For those who are not intimately familiar ject matter, his flexibility in using different Meyerowitz when I reach him by telephone.
with Meyerowitz’s career, a thumbnail sketch: camera formats, and his willingness to ex- “Do you know Siena? We are about 15 miles
acclaimed street photographer, a master of periment. As the photographer Teju Cole south of it. In a beautiful valley in a 200-plus-
both 35mm and large-format cameras and noted, “[Meyerowitz] can’t be pinned down year-old barn someone has converted into a
color as well as black-and-white film, a cou- to two or three styles. His oeuvre is as varied three-bedroom home.”
ple of Guggenheim Fellowships, more than as any among contemporary photograph- He explains that he and his wife, the Brit-
350 exhibits, 30 books (including the mega ic masters, but this is not a matter of rest- ish novelist Maggie Barrett, have visited
best-seller “Cape Light,” which has sold more lessness. The variety is organically related Tuscany and elsewhere in Europe for years
than 100,000 copies over 25 years), awards to whatever he is exploring at any given while they lived full-time in New York City.
galore, and photographs in the permanent point. He changes because he must.” Mey- “About six years ago I realized Maggie had
collections of New York’s Museum of Mod- erowitz has produced award-winning work lived on my agenda for the last two decades,
ern Art, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, the as varied as street photography, landscapes, and I asked her to be captain of the ship
Art Institute of Chicago, and others world- stark but moving pictures of 9/11’s ground and take us wherever she wanted. She
wide. CNN has described him as “a color zero—where for eight months he was chose Europe, and we packed our suitcases

50 PPM AG.COM PROFE S SION A L PHOTOGR A PHER | MARCH 2019 51


and planned to stay here in Tuscany for a or landscape photography, but as he has
year. It will soon be seven years.” done throughout his professional life, Mey-
What keeps him there? Doesn’t he miss his erowitz has been attracted to venturing into
hometown and especially the buzz and jazz the unknown.
of New York’s streets? The street life he once “If you don’t grow, you die,” he tells me.
immersed himself in and became so famous There’s that, too.
for capturing? He has called Fifth Avenue “my “I’ve often said that anything you have
boulevard” and “my favorite studio.” He pauses done well is worth letting go of,” he contin-
and explains that streets the world over are ues as we talk about his lifelong tendency
much different than when he began photo- to move on and explore new photographic
graphing them in the 1960s: “The texture of horizons. “I’ve learned that after investing
the street has changed. All over the world, six to eight years doing something, I’m anx-
people walk along with their ear buds plug- ious to move to another question, another
ged in, talking on the phone or listening to mu- aspect of photography.”
sic. There’s no eye contact or curiosity; every- I ask him, “Like the way you moved from
one is so self-engaged. That sensual charge street photography, using your Leica to cap-
you used to experience between people who ture an instant, to using a large-format view
would connect with one another on the street camera taking landscapes on Cape Cod?”
is largely missing. I still shoot on the street, “Exactly. Imagine you are climbing a hill,”
but because I find it less engaging, this has he explains. “Your skills increase. You get to
freed me to photograph other things.” the top of the hill. From there you have a
For the past several years, “other things” view of a crossroads up ahead. Which way
have largely consisted of meticulously arrang- do I go? You choose a new direction and you
ed still lifes. This work, a huge departure from
his earlier photography, involves finding
and arranging or “posing” simple, often dis-
carded 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 af-
ter 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 pho-
tographing 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 per-
sonality reveals itself.”
Still lifes are far removed from his street

52 PPM AG.COM PROFE S SION A L PHOTOGR A PHER | MARCH 2019 53


Reprinted from May 2019 Professional Photographer magazine with permission.
Copyright ©Professional Photographers of America • www.ppmag.com

UNLIMITED POTENTIAL
While some may want to now label Meye-
rowitz 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 vi-
tality 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 remark-
able 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 re-
cently. 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
may be in freefall for a while. However, because form, to photograph his still lifes. “I’ll add like that. You never know where you are go-
you have learned your craft well, you can objects, take them away, move them, then ing to find yourself or when you will find an
bring those skills along on your new journey. readjust them,” he says. He takes a picture of interesting moment. Your life could change
It’s the way I have evolved artistically.” each composition so he has a record, which in a split second. Just like that!” •
A few days before I spoke with Meyerow- looks like a stop-action film, of the changes.
itz, he had spent much of the day, from 10 in He laughs and says, “I came back a day
the morning to four in the afternoon, work- later and moved them all around again. I joelmeyerowitz.com
ing on a new still life. In a small workspace still haven’t yet decided how to finalize this
he set up a teatrino, a little theatre-like plat- picture.” Rob Kiener is a writer in Vermont.

54 PPM AG.COM
9 PPM AG.COM