INSIDE THE LIGHT: Joel Meyerowitz

New York of the 1970s was a place and period in the history of fine art photography that was strongly associated with the genre of 35mm black-and-white street photography. Joel Meyerowitz, himself a street photographer, shattered the mold with his use of color and the large format camera to create a series of pictures culminating in the book Cape Light. The impact on both the then-small world of fine art photography and a larger public was powerful. The book, in print for almost 30 years, is one of the most important classics in contemporary photography, one of the “must-haves” for serious students of the medium.

Never one to fall comfortably into one category for long, Meyerowitz has continued to surprise with his subsequent projects. In recent years his work at the site of Ground Zero, photographing the clean-up following the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, has provided important documentation of a major event in the history of the United States. In an era seemingly swarming with newspaper photographers as well as amateurs with cell-phone cameras, only Meyerowitz had the determination and ingenuity to obtain permission to enter the site with his view camera. Once established there, he returned again and again for nine months, producing an archive of over 8,000 images in an extraordinary body of work that has found a worldwide audience.

A high-profile figure in the world of fine art photography, Joel Meyerowitz is the recipient of two Guggenheim Fellowships as well as NEA and NEH awards. He has published 14 books and Phaidon Press will publish a new retrospective book of his work in September 2009. His work has appeared in over 350 exhibitions in museums and galleries around the world. Most recently, from the end of February through the middle of April of 2008, The Elements: Air and Water, Part 1 appeared as a one-person exhibition with his representative, the Edwynn Houk Gallery in New York, where the second part of the series will also appear at a later date.

Many photographers reject their very early work. However, you seem to respect your work of the past, from decades ago, and continue to integrate it into your thinking. Do you see it more as part of the necessary process of growth?

Yes, I’ve spent the past year going through all the work to come up to the present and seeing the various turns that the work has made. Even the dead ends are really important. You go forward and you put in all your energy and the thing doesn’t play out, but it teaches you something. It’s important to be able to read your entire body of work for the discoveries of who you were at that moment in your consciousness. Was I as conscious then as I am now? No, I’m only as conscious as I am now because of then because the past allowed me to explore things in a very narrow-focused way. Then on the next step, it doubled in some way and it always seems to me to be doubling. It’s as if you are actually compounding your interest in yourself by actually giving it some substance and meaning and respect.

I once read a Robert Frost essay about poetry in which he described what I see as the artist’s method of growing. It was in the essay called The Figure a Poem Makes. He said, “We are always casting our experience ahead of us like a giant throwing stones; we cast our experience ahead of us and someday we cut a path of purpose across that.” I took it to mean that out of the innocence of the moment you write a poem about what you know and that is you broadcasting your experience, but you don’t quite understand it at the time. Then you cut this path of purpose across and you suddenly realize, oh my god, I was actually ahead of myself. I understood this intuitively, natively, but I couldn’t express it as well then as I can now because I did not yet see it in relation to other things. I was just sort of blurry. Photography is like that. There are so many times I’ve made pictures just on the grab in a way that a year or two later, going back over those contact sheets or looking at the rolls of color film, I will say, oh, I was getting the first inkling of this back then, but I didn’t have the connection to make the commitment to it or I didn’t understand it as well. I’ve seen this in many of my peers’ works as well as in works of older artists. They started something but then they took a doorway, one way or another, and ultimately they came back and picked up on it again. I think it’s really important to stay in touch with your basic efforts so that you can be combing through them to see where a fresh start might be possible. That’s good advice for young photographers, too.

I’ve been fortunate, really, since the beginning. I started in 1962. In 1963 John Szarkowski chose a photograph of mine to be in The Photographer’s Eye exhibition at MoMA in 1964. It was a photograph that I made but I didn’t quite understand it. I knew I liked it because I thought it was funny, but I knew there was something else there. John picked it and I remember sitting in his office and saying, “What is it exactly that you like about this picture? Why did you pick this one rather than one of the others?”

He said, “It’s a highly descriptive picture and yet it’s completely ambiguous, both these things. It has a kind of pure photographic seeing. You can see it all but you can’t quite make out what it is.”

I got it, in a sense. When I made the picture I kind of recognized that you couldn’t really see the guy and I wasn’t sure…was this worthy or was it…? I couldn’t have said it the way he said it. I thought it was more of a joke. He saw it as a joke plus. You know, if you’re willing to ask what things mean to other people…I learned a lot from John. I learned more from John Szarkowski than any other person in my study of photography because of his incredible generosity and exquisite writing, his willingness to speculate. What about this? Is this photographic? So I think I was incredibly fortunate to have come along while he was here.

Clearly you have vivid memories of the fine art photography scene of the 1960s and ’70s in New York. What else stands out to you about that time frame in photography?

There was no sense of being aggressive, of having to elbow someone else out of the way. We were friends, we shared work with one another, we looked at one another’s work. It was always about photography. It wasn’t about who’s your dealer, what are you getting, what are your prices? Why are your prices at $20,000 and mine are only at 18? Nothing like that at all. It was just incredibly openhearted and about the medium itself and we were lucky. Today’s young photographers coming out of graduate school are driven by ambition and I see so much imitative and redundant work that looks to me like trendy stuff that I hope disappears.

I was fortunate to come of age at a moment when photography had no outlet. Before The Witkin Gallery there was only one gallery in New York, the Underground Gallery, and museums were not really showing much in the way of photography. Photography had no commercial value in terms of the art world. I saw Ansel Adams’ pictures on sale for 25 bucks at the Underground Gallery in 1964 and 65. Edward Weston and Ansel Adams, like 50 bucks was tops.


In 1978 your book Cape Light was published by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. It was a real turning point in your work: the use of color film and the 8×10″ view camera were strong departures from your past work and that of your peers at the time, most of whom were working with 35mm and black-and-white. What kind of an impact did Cape Light have?

It was one of those few early bodies of work, along with Stephen Shore’s and Bill Eggleston’s, that sort of moved color into visibility. But you know I started in color. My first work in 62 was only color. I didn’t know any better. Then I started using black-and-white, and when I had money to buy a second camera, I carried two Leicas, one with black-and-white and one with Kodachrome. In 1970, 71, just after I received a Guggenheim, color made some interesting leaps forward in terms of the darkroom. I started making color prints myself. John Szarkowski had always talked about “description” as being a characteristic of photography. I thought color was a better answer to this idea of description and complexity because color rendered more content, and I committed myself to stopping black-and-white around 1971, 72.

I started making a body of work on Fifth Avenue in which I also gave up the “incident” that most photographs were based on: that is, there was usually something happening in the frame relative to something else. I tried to move that aside and make only pictures that were open-ended field pictures. They were about everything going on, including the space, because I wanted as deep a depth of field as I could get with color, which forced me to step back. This issue for me, about making a new kind of photograph that didn’t depend on the incident, provoked me to want a bigger image to work with so I would have more depth of field and the greater descriptive power.

In the end I bought an 8×10 view camera, a Deardorff, and in 1976 I went away in the summertime. I wanted to take my kids to a place where I could experiment with this camera. I chose Provincetown on Cape Cod because Provincetown was a lot like 8th Street in Manhattan: a hip place with lots of street life. I figured I’ll be out on the street and I’ll photograph.

Little did I know that I would at the same time be overcome by the meditative, slower, spacious kind of luminosity that the Cape offered. I found that my street/jazz musician side was slowing down and I was becoming more of an observer and that the Cape led me to discover another part of my personality. I could be one way on the streets and another way somewhere else. By that time I knew the work of Walker Evans and Eugène Atget and August Sander and I had great respect for their work. I didn’t have so much respect for Ansel Adams and Edward Weston because they were those old guys on the West Coast, with kelp and seashells and skies that were too dark. I mean it all seemed like artsy nonsense to me. But after working with the 8×10 camera I suddenly understood more; I didn’t agree with the kelp and the dark skies, but I did understand the kind of expansiveness that they were dealing with in emotional terms and it felt incredibly welcoming and inspiring to me. And I loved carrying a camera straight out on my shoulder, like a 35mm except with legs.

So my life since then has been this constant ebb and flow of large camera, small camera, instantaneity and meditative long looking. And it’s taught me an incredible amount. One thing has influenced another. I think my 35mm color street work definitely offered me something with the view camera in terms of the way I approached things and the view camera returned some degree of fresh observation to the street work.

In one of your lectures, a member of the audience asked if you were a Buddhist because of your emphasis on the meditative qualities in the photographs. Do you consider yourself a Buddhist?

I remember that question. That’s someone else’s reading of the work, but actually seeing something in there. It didn’t come from Buddhist practice on my part. The meditative quality came from being in consciousness at a moment of photographic revelation, standing there and just — h h h [breath] — breathing it in and waiting with the camera as the camera faithfully recorded what was there. I think that the slowing down that the camera required affected me. It’s true that in later years, in the ’80s, I did practice Tibetan sitting meditation for a long time and occasionally still do. My son is right now sitting on a mountainside in Colorado in a hut. He’s been practicing for 20 years. He started in the ’80s also, and it’s his total life. He’s completely committed to Tibetan Buddhism and to meditating and to a much deeper study. He’s really a scholar in a way. I’m sure a lot of it was generated by accompanying me frequently on my walks with the view camera on Cape Cod.

It has been said that the work in Cape Light draws the viewer into the color blue; whereas the photographs in your book Tuscany: Inside the Light draw the viewer into earth tones, the browns, into taupe and gray. Do you think that is the case and if so, is there a reason?

That’s interesting. Place is…place is the deciding factor. It’s not about a picture of the place. It’s about the spirit. If you can allow yourself to come to the photographic act from a spiritual doorway then you’re likely to have experiences in the places you find yourself that speak to a deeper core of your being. For me, Tuscany came at the very moment I was working inside Ground Zero. I had received a commission by Barnes and Noble to do a book with my wife Maggie on Tuscany, because we were teaching workshops there. We were supposed to start that book in September of 2001. They had given us a $20,000 advance. Then of course 9/11 happened and I felt myself compelled to do the work on Ground Zero because it was banned by the mayor and the police commissioner. I thought they had no right to do that. We need a record of this. I discovered in myself a need to confront the bureaucracy and to make this against their wishes. Very unusual for me. By November I got a call from the publisher, Barnes and Noble, and he said, “How’s our book on Tuscany doing?”

I said, “I hate to tell you, but I spent the advance on Ground Zero.”

Then I was able to take a little break and I went to Tuscany. To walk on the earth, after walking in Ground Zero, where there was no dirt — it was all steel and rubble and concrete — to set foot on the Tuscan earth that gave under my feet and to smell the richness that was mud one day and clay the next and crust a week later — and to feel the ordinary magnitude of that element was a total transformation. I think that my wife Maggie and I both felt that it was a gift to be walking on the earth, that to be in nature put us in touch with goodness at a time when terrorism and death and the tragic mode were in our lives. I found myself making the dumbest of pictures, just the clods of earth, looking down at the earth and making what I thought were humble pictures that weren’t even photographic; they were so different for me.

How did you gather the emotional strength to photograph inside Ground Zero for nine months?

Necessity, I think, trumps emotions. Once inside I became part of the larger group doing the work. Once you belong to a society, camaraderie develops. We were all insiders and we were doing something that needed to be done. I remember there were plenty of things I saw that were painful, hard to take, but doing the work was a thrill. I’m not ashamed to say I woke up every morning, ready to go, even after I had worked 14 hours the day before, and come home at 1:30 in the morning. I’d dump my clothing in the washing machine, bathe, get into bed, get up early in the morning, and I couldn’t wait to get down there again. In fact the strongest personal feeling I had was as if I were a young man starting out all over again. That was the nature of the excitement and the enthusiasm. When I was shooting in the ’60s, I would get up in the morning and the first thing, either Garry Winogrand would call me or I would call Garry, and we’d be in each other’s life in 20 minutes. We’d have breakfast, we’d take a walk over to Fifth Avenue, we’d go down Fifth Avenue shooting, spend the day, go to MoMA for lunch, hang out on the street. It was a thrill to be discovering photography in the 1960s, and in 2001 and 2002 there was never a day I said, “Oh no, I gotta go down to….” It was, “What’s goin’ on there, I gotta get down there now to see what I can photograph.”

So I had that sense of rejuvenation that is probably rare in the lives of most artists, when they’re burning, on fire, again, because of something that’s happening in the world. That was a gift in my life. I wasn’t burdened by it. I think people outside the site, in the real world beyond, were dealing solely with tragedy, the continued tragic tone, whereas inside, the tragedy happened on the first day. Now it was like get it outta here, move this stuff along, let’s find the bodies, let’s clean up the mess, let’s get this thing whole again, let’s build new buildings, let’s go forward. So the energy inside was like — whoom! — like this, I couldn’t wait to get there on a daily basis.

You devoted yourself to photographing Ground Zero, which culminated in the book Aftermath: The World Trade Center Archive. Your work in Italy was published as Tuscany: Inside the Light. What are you working on now?

Last summer in July I began a new body of work with a video and large format pictures, which were shown in Germany [at Zander Galerie in Cologne] and at Edwynn Houk Gallery in New York, from February 21 – April 12, 2008. [It also opened in Tokyo at Gallery White Room on March 7 and will be open for three months.] It’s called The Elements: Air and Water, Part 1. I’ve already started on the second video. I’m going to be doing Air, Water, Fire and Earth, in a way that’s not about a pictorial view of them — the horizon line, all the trees and water, and clouds, you know, all the stuff of pictures. Instead, I’m trying to see how close I can get to the phenomena of the elements themselves, so that the viewer looking at the prints — which are all very large, they’re 76″ to 90″ — is in the water, in the air, in the fire, in a way that’s not like any picture I’ve made before.

The ancients regarded air, earth, fire and water as the basic elements of nature, in the same way a modern person thinks of atomic particles or DNA as the building blocks of nature. How did you get started on this idea of air, earth, fire and water?

I stumbled into it last summer. I was making a video for another reason entirely and I observed something while I was in a pool in Florida, photographing. I was in an underwater room, and the divers were coming down, one after the other. As they passed through the water surface they brought air in with them, and then when they came up from the bottom, the air gathered itself and went back up into air. It couldn’t stay in the water because it’s air. I remember looking at it and thinking, “The elements are totally separate. They co-exist, but one is not the other.” It was an epiphany. And on that day I changed what I was in Florida for and I continued to photograph with this new idea in mind. The show at Houk’s and in Japan is all work from this one day last summer in Florida.

One of your pictures, a key photograph in the new body of work, is of a diver who is presented upside down. André Kertész also presented a picture of a swimmer upside down, a photograph of his brother swimming across a lake. Why did you decide to present this diver to the viewer upside down?

I decided to present the diver upside down because she is wrapped in this incredible volume of air, like a fantastic gown of air. It thrills me photographically to do that, but it also reflects a place where I am right now in which the photographic reality that I have hewed to all these years — never touch anything, never manipulate anything, never do anything upside down — doesn’t matter to me in the same way. It’s true I work upside down in the view camera, so I’m comfortable that way, but when I saw this picture I thought, oh yeah, this has to be this way. All the other pictures are mostly right side up. I am a swimmer and when I’m in the water, you know, upside down and right side up is like being in space, almost gravity-free. So in a way, I rationalize it completely, to be any way it is, however, I like it.

 All this work has now taken me in a new direction in film and photography. I will photograph other combinations of water and fire, and maybe earth and air, and see how many variations I can pull together to make a larger exhibition for six videos and work from all the elements, a museum-scale show, hopefully. It’s where I find myself now and it’s all a continuation of one step at a time of arriving at a recognition and then being taken in by the recognition, and shown a new way of looking at the world or at your relationship to it. I’m sure this work is directly related to what I did inside Ground Zero. I stepped off Ground Zero to make pictures like this, where it’s just light and the phenomena of the elements. They all seem to me to be of a piece. Something is going on that is moving me towards a new realization of what’s next for me right now and it’s thrilling. How great to be turning 70 this year and to still feel as if it’s all wide open. I’m totally willing to, like, fail, totally willing to fail.

Do you see your recent work as posing a new question about spatial relationships in your photography?

The question for me is, can I move away from the Pictorialist, Renaissance perspective point of view that photography does as a given, and instead make something that is a different kind of space closer to the two-dimensional space inside photography. Photography is two-dimensional, but the illusion of three dimensions is everywhere in photography and most photographers use that very well. The phenomena require an immersion into the experience, rather than a picture of it from far away. So I’m trying to stay true to the sense of what it is when you’re up close against the print …and I can explain it a little bit: it’s like when you go to see a Richard Serra sculpture and you stand up against it. It’s almost like standing up against the hull of the Queen Mary. You get there and there’s nothing else you could see; it fills your vision and you feel the power and the scale and the density and the hardness and the mass of steel. And it fills your vision everywhere. And that’s part of what you take away from the experience, this daunting material bigger than you, which is pitching over at you in some way. So I’m asking myself, can I do this photographically? I mean, photographs have a limit on how big you can make them without piecing them together like a Gucci sign on Fifth Avenue, which is interesting to me. But can you do it with a photograph in a gallery, a museum setting that allows you to offer the viewer an experience of the phenomena like the original, without making a picture of it that conforms to tried and true methods of perspective and illusion. So that’s the question that I’m asking. I haven’t got the answer, for sure. I’m going to try to find my way to the answer by posing the question.

You’ve already started photographing fire. How have you done that? Isn’t there danger inherent in that?

Well, you know these elements don’t have to be extreme. The water that I’ve photographed is in a swimming pool. It’s not the ocean. The fires that I’ve photographed so far have been ordinary woodland fires, people burning brush. So I just walked up to the fire and watched it produce what it produces. It produces ash, it produces smoke, the ash goes up, the ash falls down, it’s in the air. Fire cannot be fire without air; it has to consume air to be fire. Without air it doesn’t burn, so it needs a partner to be there. I’m looking at that intersection between fire and air.

I’m also not canceling out the human element in all the elements. In some sense there’s this notion of quintessence — quintessence means the “fifth essence” — and it was what the ancients called alchemy. It was trying to turn lead into gold, the fifth essence. I look at human beings as the quintessence. We are the sum of all of these things. We breathe, we use fire, we drink water, we’re composed of water, we go to dust. We are all of these things but we are also the fifth. So in all of these — not in all of the pictures, but in each of the videos — there’s a potential for human interaction. That’s been interesting, to be open to that.

This is comparable to your ability to draw the viewer into the experience of color, the blue of Cape Cod and the earth tones of Tuscany, or the experience of the tragedy inherent in Aftermath. Do you see your photographs as an attempt to pull the viewer into the totality of your own emotional reality?

I’m not a deadpan photographer. Some of my peers, I think, are viewed and celebrated for their deadpan take on things. I’m different in the sense of being emotional, and making an opening for people to come and visit. For me it’s always been — and really this is the kind of thing I understood a long time ago — it’s always been to share the experience, as if I stood someplace and was stopped with a sense of wonder, real awe. I sometimes call it the gasp reflex, when you say — Ah.h.h! — and you know, you’ve been opened up, you’ve inspired. [He gasps in air.] That’s pure inspiration. That’s what you do. You’re taking it all in. It passes through you and changes you in some way and then if I stop at that place where it has connected to me and I make a photograph from there, that’s what I think I offer back into the world, this transformation. It’s like saying here, stand where I stood. I’m not going to tell you what to see. Just stand here and look at this. And if there’s some passage to the viewer of the wonder of the unexpected moment, then that is making art or making photography. Your sense of reality has been transformed in that split second, which has now been crystallized into the moment of consciousness, and then that is captured somehow, and now you have a chance to look at it and trip out. My favorite photographs in the world — not mine, but other workers’ photographs — are the ones in which I’m transported and I’m gone. I’m in their space. They’ve taken me to Egypt in 1860; they’ve taken me to Paris in 1900; they’ve taken me to Germany in 1920. I’m standing there and I’m lost. I’ve made the trip. It’s what photography can actually do best, to describe a moment in “the present,” whatever that present is. It’s the “eternal present,” and we sit here in 2008 and we pick up something from 1860 and we look at it from 2008 and it’s in our lives. It fills us with wonder. Look at the pyramids, look at the woman in the long dress riding side-saddle on the camel, look at the bearers behind her, look at the quality of the day, look at the long shadows. I mean, suddenly you’re there and you forget where you are. It’s Proustian in the best sense; it’s the ultimate madeleine.