I mentioned a few weeks ago that I was going to write about the artists who inspire me as a photographer. The first thing to mention is that not all of them are photographers, which might seem a little odd at first, but will make sense when we think of photography’s roots as a technical medium. Except for documentary, the photographic genres as we know them, portraiture, landscape etc., all evolved from classical art such as painting and sculpture, so there will be a few of each in this series of posts. First up though, is the photographer who inspired me to take up film again: Joel Meyerowitz.
Meyerowitz is an American photographer, known for his street work and in particular pioneering the use of colour in the genre. He’s also known for his hugely emotive images of the aftermath of 9/11 and his candid portraiture throughout the 1970s and 80s. I first became aware of him while watching the 2007 BBC television series The Genius of Photography. He was shown walking the streets of New York City getting close to people with his Leica M and taking pictures. In his interview piece, he described how the city was so anonymous that his subjects didn’t believe he was actually taking a picture of them – the thinking being ‘why would this guy be interested in me?’. His ability to go largely unnoticed in the crowd resonated with me, as being conspicuous makes me really uncomfortable when I’m out with my camera. I started to look closely at his street work, first in black and white and then in colour. Colour film was first available in the 1930s, but it wasn’t until decades later that it became financially viable to be shot in 35mm format. Meyerowitz started to see the colour as ‘supporting’ the composition rather than being a distraction; the latter still being a consideration today. At the time, black and white photography was seen as ‘art’ and colour as for ‘snapshots’. His street work draws on the decisive moment, where a unique moment from an event unfolding is observed and captured (for more on this idea, see Decisive Moment Article. It is one of his images from the 1960s that for me, is the best example of the decisive moment (I’m not including it here as it’s one of my pet hates when bloggers appropriate artists’ work for their own ends). Paris, 1967 depicts a chaotic scene involving a man who has fallen in the street in front of many passers-by. The image asks many questions about them moment because standing over the fallen man, is another man holding a hammer. Is he the aggressor in a fight that has just happened, or is he simply rushing to help the man? Are the onlookers shocked by the fall or the cause of it?. Have a look and let me know how you read it.
From there, I discovered his large format portraiture and landscape work that he shot in Cape Cod in the late 1970s. The portraits have an uncluttered feel to them, but the subject’s gaze lets the viewer connect with their personality and how they feel at that moment being photographed. I’ve been studying the idea of the gaze in my course this past year and I keep coming back to Meyerowitz’s Cape Cod portraits as a reference.
His landscapes taken during the same period, reveal the natural beauty of the sunrise and sunset over the Cape. The 8x10 inch negatives were used to produce very large prints which, when viewed, draw us into the landscape as if we could feel the sunlight and hear the sea. It was this series, called Cape Light, which led me to briefly meet Meyerowitz at a gallery show in London in 2016. He was just milling around, signing books and while he did mine, we talked briefly about his using the 8x10 camera for the series. He told me that shooting the camera with its single sheet of film, forced him to take his time over a shot. He could observe the scene carefully, without feeling the need to rush to pressing the shutter. Slowing down was a way of improving concentration and making a picture of what we have visualised in our minds. In addition, the sheer effort of lugging the heavy camera around, increased the need to make every shot count. I thanked him, bought a limited edition of his collective works Taking My Time (which he also signed), and went home. The next day I ordered a second-hand Hasselblad 500c/m medium format film camera online and started learning and shooting film. The rest, as they say, is history.
Now in his 80s, Joel Meyerowitz continues to work across the genres that interest him, most notably in still life. He revisits and re-evaluates his previous work on his Instagram page, engaging in discussion with his followers, and shares previously unseen images from his long career. They say, “Never meet your heroes”, but on this occasion what the hell do they know?
To see Joel’s work, please visit https://www.joelmeyerowitz.com/ or joel_meyerowitz on Instagram.
Are you inspired to take up photography? Bought a shiny new camera (or even a shiny old one) that you don’t know how to use? Why not drop me a line at [email protected] to find out about some beginners’ tuition? My programme assumes no prior knowledge, can be delivered in person or online, and can be extended beyond the core principles as needed.