Meyerowitz on the World Trade Center Archive

I saw Joel Meyerowitz give a presentation tonight for the archive of photographs he created of Ground Zero, a selection of which has been compiled into this book. I went to his presentation not just because Meyerowitz is a well-known street photographer, but of the thoughtfulness and articulation he displayed in these two interviews with Terry Gross.

Meyerowitz isn’t just any photographer, he’s a photographer’s photographer, capable of creating dynamic work regardless of what (or how) he’s shooting. But with a project like the World Trade Center archive, he’s become “the people’s photographer.”

I first came across his work (as a writer) in Bystander, which, on its own, is an accomplishment. In responding to a question I posed to him about how the Ground Zero project fits into his career as a working photographer, he spoke about how writing Bystander taught him the importance and role of a photographic archive.

He spoke about how looking at archives in San Francisco (perhaps the Arnold Genthe photographs of turn-of-the-century Chinatown and 1906 earthquake aftermath) taught him the potential of historical-based archives (akin to those created for the Farm Security Administration in the 30s) and how that research was a baseline for his response when he was ordered not to take pictures on a visit to the site a week after 9/11.

Meyerowitz also described how the “jazziness” of street photography helped him improvise and think on his feet while working at Ground Zero. It was that background, when coupled with his “Cape Light” era studies of space and light that gave him the wherewithall to make over eight thousand large-format images in eight months on the site.

As an aside, I didn’t really know what street photography was until I picked-up Bystander. If, like me, you came late to photography (or art in general) and are looking for a good overview of the history of street photography, start there. As I recall, there are two versions of the book, and the latest has been revised.

Plus, in this age of celebrity and god knows what else, it’s increasingly rare when an artist speaks thoughtfully and intelligently about the work that they do. If the Meyerowitz road show stops in your town, take the time to have a look and listen.

Meyerowitz interviewed for PBS.
US State Department exhibit
Other Meyerowitz mentions on 2point8.

4 thoughts on “Meyerowitz on the World Trade Center Archive”

  1. This is indeed a great talk; I saw him when he came to DC. At the dicussion I attended, also in reference to how this project fits in with the rest of his career, he discussed how both his getting older and his appreciation for photographic archives led to his feeling compelled to do work with a social and historical function, and how different this was from all of his previous work. He talked of needing to minimize the self in this project as much as possible, a very different approach for someone with a career in art rather than editiorial photography. He said he’d like to do more work with this kind of practical social utility.

    A very interesting discussion, and apart from being highly thoughtful and articulate, he’s also pretty entertaining.

    Thanks for your comments on this.

  2. Nice comment Stephen. I appreciate Joel Meyerowitz a great deal. I’ve heard him speak on a few occasions and agree that he’s a highly articulate individual. I saw his “Looking South” show right after 9/11 and was sure not to miss his “The City Resilient” large format prints when they were displayed at 195 Broadway, a block from Ground Zero. The effect of seeing prints displayed so large was indescribable. That experience rattled around in my head for weeks. It really stitched into my brain the scale of the destruction.

    So I was very anxious to see his book of said photographs. Several weeks ago I noticed it in a window display at McNally Robinson on Prince Street and went in to take a look. In all honesty, I was disappointed that I was disappointed by it. On countless occasions, looking at a picture, I felt myself wondering, “Didn’t I just see this photo 25-50 pages back?” More than that I felt the images lacked sharpness, as if the printing was off, because I was so prepared to see crystal clear detail. It seemed a lot of the full-page shots were shot on 35mm film at wide open apertures.

    I could be comparing apples and oranges (the exhibit vs. the book) and I’ll definitely give it another look next time I see it. I’ve heard him talk of the importance of looking at “humble, evidentiary work,” a term that really stuck with me, and I applaud his efforts to take on this task–I think it was right up his alley. Still, I felt the book was edited poorly, very much underedited–in particular when it came to pictures taken ON the pile. I wonder what a similar attempt might have looked like were it taken up by Robert Polidori. Perhaps what I’m yearning to see is a compilation of pictures taken before 9/11. I was at the foot of the towers a handful of times, and on top of them only once, but I remembered kicking myself for not taking more pictures of the Austin Tobin plaza below.

  3. Cary – I was going to mention the lack of sharpness in many of the images in the book. I figured it was a printing problem, too. I mean, if you go to the trouble of shooting large format, don’t you want your main subject to be in focus?

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