Born on 6 March 1938 in the Bronx, New York City, Joel Meyerowitz studied art and medical illustration at Ohio State University before working as an art director at an advertising agency. One day in 1962 he was sent to supervise a shoot by the photographer Robert Frank and became completely entranced by the way Frank worked. Meyerowitz was so inspired that he left his job in advertising, bought a camera and began his career as a photographer. He has said of the meeting, 'Robert Frank never said a word to me that day, but he affected me deeply. I walked out there and I literally saw the world differently. Everywhere I looked, there was movement and there was colour.' In these early years Meyerowitz photographed the streets of New York alongside Garry Winogrand and Tony Ray-Jones. Meyerowitz’s razor-sharp reactions recorded fleeting and surreal moments on the sidewalks, and the works produced during this time bubble with the city’s energy.Read More
Being unaware of the art world prejudice in favour of black and white photography, Meyerowitz began shooting on colour film, producing vibrant, energetic street scenes of New York. Speaking of his move into colour photography, Meyerowitz has said that colour 'describes more things.' Continuing, he explained, 'when I say description, I don’t mean mere fact and the cold accounting of things in the frame. I really mean the sensation I get from things, their surface and colour, my memory of them in other conditions as well as their connotative qualities. Colour plays itself out along a richer band of feelings more wavelengths, more radiance, more sensation.' This approach to colour made Meyerowitz crucial in the repositioning of colour photography from the margins to the mainstream of fine art photography.
In 1966, Meyerowitz undertook a road trip across Europe, spending time in the United Kingdom, France, Spain, Turkey and Germany. The trip marked a change in his outlook, and he now refers to it as his ‘coming-of-age’ year as an artist. The years of the late 1960s were vital in formulating what Meyerowitz calls field photographs. He began to challenge himself to move away from the caught moment towards a more non-hierarchical image in which everything in the image, including the colour, played an equal, vital role. In 1968 a solo exhibition of his photographs, Photographs from a Moving Car, was mounted at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. By 1972, Meyerowitz had excluded black and white altogether from his output and was focusing entirely on producing street scenes that forfeited action, but retained energy. He had moved away from the convention of a centralised composition and was making images that reverberated all over with dynamism.
In the summer of 1976, after meditating on colour for over a decade, Meyerowitz exchanged his trusty Leica for a vintage 8 x 10 inch Deardoff view camera and replaced the bustling scenes of the sidewalk with the serene and expansive landscapes of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Over the course of two summers Meyerowitz photographed the coast, small towns and inhabitants of the Cape with great sensitivity to the scale and colour of the landscape. The large format camera required him to step back from his usual proximity to his subjects on the streets of New York and take in his larger surroundings. The expansive skies and crystalline colours produced a new kind of photography–slow, meditative and experiential.
The centrality of colour in Cape Light relates to a wider concern with the proximity of photography to vision. The extraordinary replication of the visual through the camera becomes evident in the focus on the effects of light in the landscape. In order to capture the essential quality of the light on the Cape, Meyerowitz needed to feel part of the landscape. On the Cape Meyerowitz became a mediator of sensorial detail, selecting from total experience in order to distil a simplicity of form from the mass of information. The photographs from the series were published in a book, Cape Light, in 1978, which is now regarded as one of the most significant photobooks of the twentieth century.
In 1995 Meyerowitz produced and directed a film, POP, about a three-week road trip he made with his son, Sasha, and his father, Hy, an 87-year-old with Alzheimer’s. The film considers the significance of memory with wit and empathy. Meyerowitz is known for photographing the aftermath of the September 11 2001 terror attacks on the World Trade Centre, being one of the only photographers allowed access to the site. His most recent work has turned to still life and led him to photograph the studios of Cézanne and Giorgio Morandi.
The recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities awards and a two-time Guggenheim Fellow, Meyerowitz has published twenty-two books, including a two volume retrospective publication, Taking My Time (2013). His work is held in collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Boston Museum of Fine Art and the Art Institute of Chicago.
Text courtesy Huxley-Parlour.