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On Photography: Joel Meyerowitz, 1938-present

“In art photography, there was still this huge prejudice against color as if only black and white were aesthetically justifiable. I never bought that: for me color is essential; I instinctively felt I needed it to give my workforce. Just as we have smell memories, we have color memories. I mean the world is in color, right?” -Joel Meyerowitz

Joel Meyerowitz is one of the first fine art photographers to make the transition from black and white to color. He has the ability to express visual stories in street photographs, still life images and landscapes.

Moving in the moment

Joel Meyerowitz was walking in Manhattan when he noticed a young woman combing her boyfriend’s Elvis-style hairdo. As he took the photograph, the guy looked up, seeing him through the window. Meyerowitz imagined that the girl had likely styled her dolls’ hair the same way. “I snuck up as close as I could and tried to capture the intimacy of that moment.” He said, “I was very shy and it took all my courage – if the plate glass hadn’t been there, maybe I wouldn’t have dared get so close (opening photo, top row, third image.)”

Joel Meyerowitz worked as an art director with renowned photographer Robert Frank for a brochure he was designing. He marveled at Frank’s easy way of working through the scene with his camera.

Meyerowitz said, “The way he weaved in and out of the girls he was shooting, my God, that was a revelation to me. You could move while working the camera. Wow! I wanted to do that, too.”


On Photography: Joel Meyerowitz, 1938-present
Joel Meyerowitz book signing Berlin
Copyright: © Dacian Groza

Joel Meyerowitz’s work on the street in the 1960s found him becoming a master of the craft. After seeing Frank, he shadowed Garry Winogrand, the tireless and frenzied street photographer. His photograph “New York City, 1975” seems to be a carefully choreographed vision. It isn’t. Joel Meyerowitz captured it on a Manhattan street as it happened. He has the patience to wait for the moment to happen and the instinct to know when to release his shutter. How many people do you see in the image (opening photo, top row, first image?)

There are eight — the couple in camel coats, then two more to their right with shadows on their back, a man deep in the darkness, the two shadows and the shadow of Meyerowitz himself.

“Hartwig House, Turo, MA, 1976”

A year after taking “New York, 1976,” Joel Meyerowitz made the simple, uncluttered interior of the Hartwig house (opening photo, top row, second image) with an 8 by 10-inch view camera. The immediacy of both photographs is easily seen yet one was spur-fo-the-moment while the other was painstakingly composed and exposed.

Unspoken communication

The girl wearing a blue top and white pants (opening photo, bottom row, first image) holds eye contact with Joel Meyerowitz as he takes the picture. There is a connection between them. She is still until the camera lowers. Does she know she is the focal point? This unspoken communication that Meyerowitz has instantly with his subjects is what makes his work speak so clearly to his viewers.

On Photography: Joel Meyerowitz, 1938-present
Longnook Beach, Truro, Massachusetts, 1985

“Street” today

“Nobody’s looking at each other. Everybody’s glued to their phones.” Meyerowitz observes. He wonders if street photography still exists at all saying, “It’s thriving but not in the way I used to do it. The best street photographers now show humans dwarfed by ad billboards. The street has lost its savor.”

Sources: The Guardian, International Center for Photography, The New York Times.

On Photography features inspiration photographers.

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Rafael Jones

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