Joel Meyerowitz: "One way of dealing with your shyness is to confront it"

A pivotal figure in American photography for 50 years, Bronx-born Joel Meyerowitz began his professional life as a Mad Man, working as an art director for the Fifth Avenue advertising agency Business Image in the early 1960s. He quit the agency and took up full-time street photography following a chance encounter with Robert Frank on a 1962 photo session. Over the next 15 years, Meyerowitz shot almost daily on Fifth Avenue, a street which continues to hold a special fascination for him.
Following the September 11 attacks on New York’s World Trade Center, Meyerowitz was given exclusive, unrestricted access to Ground Zero and spent nine months documenting the scene. A selection of his photographs was published in 2006 as Aftermath: World Trade Center Archive.
Although best known for his street photography and 9/11 archive, Meyerowitz is also a master of landscape photography. An early champion of colour film, he began shooting landscapes in Cape Cod during the 1970s. His book Cape Light, published in 1979, is a classic of the genre. Another strand more recently added to his work is the photography of “pure elements” – earth, fire, water, air – shot without the familiar trope of a horizon line. Reproduced on a large scale, the prints offer an immersive experience.
Meyerowitz spent 2013 in Europe – in Tuscany and Provence – but is usually based at his apartment on New York’s Upper West Side.

Before you joined the ad agency through which you encountered Robert Frank, did you study visual arts at college?
I did. I went to a university that was not known for art, Ohio State University. I was there from 1955-59, mainly because I was a swimmer and I hoped to be on the swimming team. They had perhaps the best swimming team in the US at that time. I went there not on a scholarship but with hopes of becoming an Olympic contender. I lost the berth to a better swimmer by a few tenths of a second.
I studied art, art history and medical illustration. I got involved with drawing cadavers. I met the man who ran the only medical illustration department in America and he convinced me to do that as well as painting. So on the one hand I was making loose, abstract paintings, and on the other I was drawing tight, careful, anatomical renderings. It was good discipline.

But it was not until that famous meeting with Robert Frank that you became excited by photography?
Absolutely. Photography did not exist for me as an art form at first. It existed as a commercial resource or a documentary field. Because I was a painter it was below my aspirations and my horizon. But the way Robert moved that day – I think more than anything, the way that he moved and took photographs at the same time – was a springboard for my imagination. I owe him a lot. He opened my eyes.

Which other photographers were important influences when you were starting out?
There were two. How much they were influences and how much it was friendship is hard to discern. But within days of quitting the agency and beginning to photograph, I took my film to a lab and when I went back to pick it up, next to me on an adjacent light box was a furry young guy, pretty much my age, who was looking at his slides while I was looking at mine. The two of us were obviously novices and puzzled by things and we began to converse. And it was Tony Ray-Jones. He also was working as a designer, at CBS Records, which was just down the block from my office.
It was another significant encounter. We made a pact, because we enjoyed talking to each other and neither of us had a vocabulary or any kind of knowledge or experience. We were fumbling along together. And we went shooting together for a good year and a half, working the street parades in New York as a laboratory, learning how to be invisible and fast, get the best exposures, and discover the appropriate distances from which we could take photographs. We learned our chops with each other. So I could say we were more or less equals and between the two of us we developed a language for discussing colour, which although relatively innocent and insufficient nonetheless gave us strength to go out on the street yet and try again and see if we could make interesting pictures.
The other person was Garry Winogrand. He was about 10 years my senior but I bumped into him on a subway train. We were both coming back from visiting our parents in the Bronx and we got talking. He said, ‘I’ve seen you on Fifth Avenue when I’ve been photographing there.’ He invited me to his house and I looked at his work, and it was really eye-opening not just to see him working but to see the product of such a voracious appetite for photography. Garry himself wasn’t that well formed, he had been more or less a commercial photographer with a passion for the streets. He was just finding himself then, too. In a way, I became a buddy. He was going through a hard time, with a divorce and kids to raise. My wife and I became sort of surrogate parents for the children, to help Garry get through the effort of doing that. It bonded us and we were very close for five years, until he moved out west.

Did you have any formal tuition in photography or were you entirely self-taught?
I did it all myself. At the beginning it was just making exposures, and if it was wrong, seeing whether there was too much or too little light and figuring out how to change that. And then when I started to print black and white, which was a year or so later, I bought an enlarger and I made a dark room for myself, and I figured it out.

A couple of years after that, maybe 1965, Garry, in an effort to try to consolidate his thinking about photography rather than the pure physicality of it, decided to hold some classes in his apartment. He asked if I would be involved in it, so that I could keep the dialogue moving – I was more verbal than he was, though I wasn’t necessarily more knowledgeable about the craft or the history. So it was more or less a discussion group. It wasn’t so much a class where you learned things, it was a forum for Garry to try to illuminate his thought processes and give us a chance to try and find a language.
As an aside, I think we all owed a lot to John Szarkowski [director of photography at New York’s Museum of Modern Art from 1962-91]. He was the stimulant in that era. He was just head and shoulders above anybody else in his capacity to understand every kind of work that the medium offered, and to write about it in illuminating and philosophical and poetic ways. I think all of us were trying to raise the level of our discourse because of John. He singlehandedly changed the course of contemporary photography.

What was it that attracted you to street photography in particular? You had watched Robert Frank, after all, working in a studio.
Well, it was actually in an apartment Robert had scouted. There’s two things. Because I worked at the ad agency I had been to a couple of studio fashion shoots and it was mind-numbingly boring. Wind machines, stylists, pieces of string holding dresses out as though they were blowing in the wind. It all seemed so tedious and narcissistic. I didn’t think of it as photography, it was like catalogue copy. But when I left the location that day and went out on the street, everything there looked different. You know, you’ll come out of a film sometimes, maybe a Fellini film, and suddenly the world outside is peopled by Fellini characters. So I stepped out on that street and suddenly every simple gesture – hailing a taxi or bundling up a kid in their coat or carrying heavy shopping bags – everything seemed to be touched with gestural tragedy or humour or whatever.
I’m a native of New York and I’d grown up on the streets and my Pop was a real observer of human behaviour and a commentator on the pratfalls that were ready to come. He would always say to me ‘Watch this, watch this!’ and boom, somebody would bump into somebody else. He had quick eyes and I think it was just a natural native instinct that I got from him. The street was where life was because… just because! And particularly because as a 23 and 24-year-old, when I would look out the window of my office, which was on Fifth Avenue, I could see down on the street the swarm of humanity. I would be just desperate to dash down there at lunchtime and wander the streets – even before I was a photographer – looking for signs of life that I might want to use as stimulus for a painting. The street called purely out of basic instinct.

Why has Fifth Avenue always had a particular pull on you?
Well, it’s New York’s great boulevard. For me, it’s the sexiest street in the world. I’ve been all over and there’s no other street which has the particular energy that Fifth Avenue has, that mix of high and low. It catches the light, its axis is north-south, and it’s wide and it gets bathed in strong sunlight and hard shadows. It just sparkles. I remember once seeing a man step out of his limousine wearing a very bespoke tailored suit and at the same time, trudging across his path, was some beaten-down black messenger who was obviously mentally deficient – he was babbling to himself and drooling – and the two of them crossed paths right in front of me. And I thought to myself, here it is.

You were an early champion of colour photography. Why was there such strong resistance to it in the 1960s? Was it simply about print quality or was it deeper than that?
That’s the essential question. Why was there such a prejudice on the so-called serious side of the photography medium? I think it derived from several things. Colour film, just prior to the 1960s, was rated at an ISO of 10. So it was very slow and if you worked with it in the studio you had to have strong light. If you worked with it out of doors you had very slow exposures. So it wasn’t always so reliable to describe events. And printing presses in particular, although they could do colour, they didn’t use a lot of colour. Only advertisers seemed to use colour. And people who had a little bit of money and had their wedding photographs, they might have colour. So colour was seen as a tool of commerce or consumer culture or sometimes journalism. But it wasn’t taken seriously as an art object, and the prints were not very good quality, they were murky in general. And nobody was exploring it.
The only reason that Tony and I shot in colour was that we were too naive to know better. By 1962, colour film had just advanced in speed. You could get an ISO of 25, so it more than doubled. And you could get it processed and back the same day. It was most important to me, as I wasn’t printing myself to start with, to see what I had photographed and I didn’t want to wait a week for it. So it was really a simple decision. But it also nourished us because when we looked at the photographs we learnt something about how colour influenced both the moment of recognition and the result we got. It was its own event within the larger event. So, Tony and I began to understand there was something there that no one else was talking about. It’s like kids today picking up a video camera and loading their own film on a computer – they can do it, it’s available to them, and their innocence allows them to explore sound and time and cutting together imagery, adding music, doing everything that the elasticity of film allows.

You once described yourself as “shy”. When you started, was it difficult to get out in the street and photograph total strangers? Is that one of the reasons why you and Tony Ray-Jones worked alongside each other?
You’ve hit it right on the head. One way of dealing with your shyness is to confront it. You can turn every deficit into something positive if you recognise it. I didn’t know how close to get or what my rights were or what I even wanted. But the street parades gave us a camouflage. The parade acted as a screen when you were taking a picture – people thought you were photographing the people in the parade with the flags and the floats, when really we were photographing the onlookers. The event disarmed them, so we could be in their critical space, two feet away from them and taking photographs up close without them reacting in any kind of negative way. And in that way we were able to steel ourselves and make a persona that wasn’t aggressive but was stealthy and yet charming and innocent. We learnt a kind of character that we could project, each of us in our own way, and it was a useful cover. And I’m not shy now.

It has been suggested that Vivian Maier, because she used a Rolleiflex held and focused at waist height, was able to get inside a subject’s critical space without that person necessarily realising she was there.
I agree. It’s a deception. Looking down is a wonderful feint, like when a boxer feints. You seem to be looking somewhere else. But also Vivian Maier was a schoolmarmish-looking person, and people didn’t anticipate any kind of negativity. That projection was, I believe, a great asset for her. Slightly goofy, dressed decently, not shouting or crazy. She fit in very well.

She once answered a child’s question by saying “I’m a sort of spy”. How would you describe what you do to a child?
I wouldn’t think of myself as a spy. Basically, the pleasure I get from seeing has nourished my whole life. If I was to describe it to kids I would say something like, “Look at that, look at how beautifully the light falls on that, look at that stride somebody has, that energy.” I’m basically searching for beauty in the moment. And beauty in an ineffable, personal way. Because I think there is a sort of beatitude all the time, and it lights up our entire intelligence when we see something that offers itself to us.

I was once involved in a photo session with a choreographer and a distinguished London dance photographer. There were two dancers, one on each side of the stage. The photographer asked the choreographer which dancer he wanted the shot to focus on. “Neither of them,” he replied. “I’m interested in the space between them.” That seems to be your concern, too.
I’m so glad you said that. To me it’s the core of my aesthetic. It’s easy enough to put a person, an object, an event at the centre of a photograph and hit the bullseye. The camera is so centripetal in that way. “Oh look, I got a picture of a dog, a flower, a face, the sunset.” Captured in the middle of the frame. It doesn’t take any brains to do that. It’s almost like pointing at something. The language of that is relatively infantile and/or simplistic.
But to see the relationship between unrelated things, once a frame is put around them, you charge the space with a potential of meaning. Because you have cut 75 degrees out of the potential 360 around you. So that space, and the intuition about what you are seeing right then, is loaded with potential. It offers, at least to my way of thinking, several positive charges. The first thing is looking at the photograph through these random fragments that are contained within the frame. And the second thing, and I think this is the heart of it, is the contradiction that while a photograph describes everything that is in it more or less precisely, there always seems to be an ambiguity about what it means. So in the street photography that I try to make, and the passion I have for that kind of life – and it doesn’t just happen in the street, I respond this way to nature as well – this ambiguous charge that a well described thing makes, that to me is the potential of modern photography.

Another feature of your street photography is that the physical distance between you and your subject is often greater than the norm, so that the field of view is wider and the composition more complex. Was that a conscious decision or something that developed incrementally, organically?
That is a really exquisite question. When I was working on the streets with Tony the seduction of everything was to see how close you could get, how far into the human spaces you could work. And then in 1964 I took a road trip around America – everybody follows in the footsteps of Robert Frank at some point. You’re searching for the identity of a country and yourself in it, your role in it, just like Robert showed us you could do. And so I found myself photographing from a moving car periodically, and I also found myself in huge Western spaces in which people were diminutive and spaces grand. And yet I would feel the impulse to make a photograph of them.
Two things happened when I came back to New York. I printed up hundreds and hundreds of photographs and I showed them to Garry right away. Garry had had a Guggenheim [Fellowship] that year – there’s a book published about Garry called Winogrand 1964, from his Guggenheim trip. He had gone south, I had gone north. When we reached California we spent a week together and went to Vegas, then he went north and I went south. When I was showing him the pictures back in New York there were quite a few that had big space in them, the subjects were further away. And I was talking about how important this was to me and he didn’t get it. He thought they were too far away. And, you know, I could understand that and in some cases I certainly agreed. And then I showed the work to John Szarkowski at MoMA. That was part of the ritual – every photographer was welcome in the department, they’d bring in their work once or twice a year and sit down with John. He was a great fisherman and we brought our fish in for inspection.
So anyway, I went in to show John these puzzling, problematic pictures, which I myself was questioning. And John looked at them and he said to me that the sign of maturity, one of the steps photographers go through, was learning to let go and step back. He said just to consider it as part of your evolution right now. I said, “But Garry doesn’t like it so much.” And he said, “Garry doesn’t know everything.” It was a wonderful validation. Because I knew that space was a character in the image and that space has profound things to communicate, in relation to the way people inhabit and move through space. Space has colour and temperament and light, it’s the theatre in which all things happen. I was enlivened by the recognition that space has force, that it’s not empty. I understood that in some kinetic way; my particular empathy with human life had been formed out of space as well as people. It’s hard to put things like that into words when you’re young, but the recognition is beyond words. It’s something that is so visceral that you just know, it just feels right.

How wonderful that John Szarkowski had such an open door.
Oh yes, and nobody since. In fact, last week I went to MoMA to meet Quentin Bajac, who took up the post of chief curator of photography in January last year – just when I left for a year in Europe. I wanted to see him and talk to him. One of things we talked about was John’s open-door policy. I said what a great asset that had been to the department, to be able to talk to people, rather than have a gallery dealer just send you a bill of goods. Quentin is forming his own view of how to develop the department. He is a very generous guy and I think he will be a great director.

I was struck by something you said in the early 1980s about photographing in Bedford-Stuyvesant. You said, “I can’t make aesthetic work out of other people’s deprivation.”
One sees a lot of journalism that is about poverty and war and crime and desperation. And yet it’s all treated with a degree of aesthetic framing. And I understand it completely. You put a frame round something and you want to make it interesting. But in a way, there’s some negligence there. I know that it’s uplifting at times and that it can help, but to put yourself in that position repeatedly, I think you risk becoming inured to the emotional content of it. So I was saying that I was not willing to do that, that I would rather deal with ordinary life and try to make visible those qualities of ordinary life that can be telling – the struggle of living and the joys and pleasures as well, and the absurdities. A more Beckett-like vision of the world, perhaps.

Received wisdom says that the value of a piece of art is in direct proportion to its bleakness. Much of your work confounds that notion.
There’s always been great suspicion in the art world about beauty and joy. As if art has to be mordant to be important. But, you know, I am who I am. I see the world and I take pleasure from the gifts the world is holding invisible until I pass by. I don’t think joyousness is everything, certainly there are dark, mysterious, brooding photographs of mine. But there also needs to be a chance for recovery, because the world brings us down all the time. We see hardships everywhere we go. A note of tenderness or a note of potential uplift is important. So why should I limit myself to the dreadful when in fact one is trying to commune with the entirety of the world?

Do you have strong views on digital versus film?
I do. I’m finished with film as of last summer. Because I use a large-format view camera I always used film. But for the last couple of years I’ve also used a large-format digital Leica, and the quality is equal to a large-format film camera. I’ve been digitising work with a scanner since 1992. I was way ahead of probably everybody in the photo world in being a proponent of scanning and preparing a database of my work.
I’ve had digital cameras since the late 1990s, but they were all crap. They slowly started getting better and then made an exponential leap in the last few years. These new Leicas are amazing instruments. In Europe last year, I had my view camera with me, and film in the freezer, and I never once used it the entire year. I realised I was making everything with the Leica. And probably, being on the move, without my New York assets, in terms of processing and everything, I was able to see everything I did every couple of days and I had a big printer given to me by HP, so I was able to print everything myself whenever I wanted. So I was in a way more connected to my work than I had been for many years. The sabbatical turned out to be a deeply pleasing, total experience of living, seeing, photographing, editing. I was much more integrated.