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Joel Meyerowitz Interview (Part 1)

This interview is being presented in two places. An abridged version with an audio excerpt can be found on the Atlanta Celebrates Photography Blog. I’m presenting a complete, unabridged version here, as the conversation was wide-ranging, lengthy, and covered topics of interest to the 2point8 readership. Many thanks again to Joel Meyerowitz for his graciousness and his time, and don’t forget to check out Discussions with other photographers on 2point8.

2point8: You have your Cape Light era pictures up at Jackson Fine Art, and I’m curious as to what the transition was like for you, from your earlier street work, to the large format photographs on Cape Cod? Were you finding limitations in the 35mm work? Did you want to step back, take more in, and describe as clearly as possible what you were seeing?

MEYEROWITZ: That’s exactly, precisely what it was for me. In that particular period of the 70s, when John Szarkowski was at MOMA, some of the underlying themes of his philosophy dealt with description. Description was what photography did - first and foremost. You press the button and the camera describes what it’s pointing at. That’s all it really does. It’s what you point it at, and how consistent you are, and how interesting you find subject matter that gives your work a dimension, and a shape, and a reason for being. But in the beginning, all the camera does is describe what’s in front of you. You can’t make it more than it is; it just is what it is.

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I think my generation probably were influenced by this kind of thinking and expression, so I started making 35mm pictures that let go of the subject in the center of the picture, and I moved to a more overall take on things. And that led me, when I saw the space in that kind of photograph, to the view camera. I could make pictures of very deep space, and have incredible resolution all through the space. So I talked myself into working with the large format camera, to gain this description, but of course I lost a certain amount of mobility in the exchange. The hybrid was interesting to me, because I tried to keep the camera like the 35mm - open and ready for use, rather than packed-up in a box, and I worked as quickly as I could. So, that, in a sense is what the difference is, and I’ve always felt that all the years I spent out on the street were very instructive to me, when I became a large format photographer. Incredibly helpful really. And then I think that the work I did with the large format also illuminated for me new options with the 35mm. It re-seeded itself, it nourished me in a new way.

(An audio excerpt from this interview can be found on the Atlanta Celebrates Photography Blog.)

2point8: In looking at your work, it’s not that you made the transition and stayed with one thing, stuck with another, or disavowed what you did in the past — there’s a very fluid way of working with these multiple formats, and that’s why I was asking what that relationship has been for you.

MEYEROWITZ: Yeah, what’s interesting about it is if you think about music, 35mm is jazz. So, the riff, the spontaneous and immediate riff on something that comes out of nowhere, is what that instrument does well. The view camera is a more classical approach. It’s slower, more meditative, it has a different way of showing its content, and yet you can be a jazz musician and play classically, like Keith Jarrett, or you can be a classical musician and love jazz. In a way, each form illuminates a quality in the other one, and so for me, it opens me up to be a more meditative and reflective photographer, rather than someone who’s working out of pure intuition and immediacy. So, I liked the additional knowledge of slowing down. I didn’t know about slowing down when I was only working in 35mm, but once I worked with the other camera, I learned something about stillness, and spaciousness, and contemplativeness, so those things have reinforced themselves and given me a new way of considering things. And it’s also a language. It feels as if I enlarged my capacity for language by changing tools.

2point8: You’ve been talking about your artistic relationship to the tool that you chose to express yourself; have you found that your method of working has influenced your personality as well, or have you been personally in the center, and worked with both ends of the spectrum - the quick and fast of the 35mm on one end, and the slow, meditative view camera on the other?

MEYEROWITZ: I think it has changed me, for the better. I’ve noticed over the years (I’ve been shooting the view camera now for thirty-one years) and I’ve had many people say to me, in response to the view camera work, how Buddhist it is, how meditative it is, and often, if I’ve given a public lecture, someone will come to me afterwards and say, “are you a practicing Buddhist?” and I realize, in some ways, whatever has happened to me through using that camera, and its slowness, and the studied, reflective quality of it, has quieted me down.

I still have some of my street humor. I can feel it come out when I’m in front of an audience and doing whatever I do, I’m always having a good time, but I can also feel this other side - and I realize that yeah, I am - and maybe we’re all this way, that we have various aspects of our personality, but we don’t develop them always. Because something doesn’t call us to explore that particular area. So I feel lucky that I stumbled through this doorway of description, and landed on the other side where there was this meadow of contemplation in it. So on one hand, there’s there’s the street, with all this noise and jazz and energy, and on the other side, there’s this long walk. And I’m in the long walk space now, in ways I didn’t know I could have been.

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2point8: I’ve read about how you created the pictures for Aftermath, and how every day was a challenge, getting kicked-off the site, having to work on your feet. I assume that some of your street sense and history helped you navigate around Ground Zero.

MEYEROWITZ: I did a reversion to type. It was very interesting. I had to go into a blue collar world. And although I grew-up in the slums of the Bronx, in a working class family, in the course of my life, I’ve grown away from that. It’s a different set of circumstances. So, to go back into Ground Zero, it meant a return to a place where my values, my aesthetics, were not something that was common with everyone there. So I found myself slipping back into type, which was exciting, because I’m a street guy… That was how I grew up. It was fun, being back in that milleu with a cast of a thousand every day, and at the same time, being able to talk with any of them. When they’d see me with the wooden camera and say, “what are you doing?”, I was able to explain to them, from my position where I am now, in language that they’d understand because of where I came from, and so, it was exciting to be sharing the kinds of feeling and experiences I was having with people who generally don’t go to museums.

2point8: About that project and the site: the site’s cleaned-up, they’re starting to rebuild, and you’re working with your archive and with the book that’s out. The national consciousness, with each passing day, has moved away from the pain of that day, but you’re still seeing a lot of the images that you took that probably viscerally remind you of what it was like to be there. How has it been emotionally to have created this project and to be working with these images even as history’s moved on?

MEYEROWITZ: A similar thing happened when I made a film about my father, who had Alzheimer’s. He and I took a three week road trip with my son, and we made a road movie about this guy who didn’t have his memory. When the road trip was over, I sat down and edited the film. It took more than a year, and then we took it on the festival circuit, and so I was involved with that film for probably three years. And it’s the same with the Ground Zero project. I’m involved with this for far longer than the group, and the event, and all of the things around it. The book came out on the fifth anniversary, so in a way, I had five years of living with those pictures and managing them and preparing the book and having to revisit it all the time. These two events; my father and Ground Zero, extended the experience in ways that brought out a great deal of emotional connection that I wasn’t experiencing the same way during the act of making the movie or taking the pictures. I mean, there were other experiences and other emotions, certainly, but to have them continue to play, locked in the room with these images, over and over and over again, you realize that it’s your vocabulary. And now I was trying to say something with these pictures. What was it that I wanted to say? Because the event is one thing. And the clean-up was another thing. And when they’re over, they’re invisible, they’re gone, you’re right, they are moving away from public consciousness, over time. I extended it, in some strange way, because I was trying to make sense out of it. And I think the book is the conclusion of that connection for me. I finally said it the way I wanted to say it. Maybe not 100%, but as close as I could sum-up that experience.

2point8: This idea of “extending the experience”. Does that get close to a liberal definition of what you would consider photography to be?

MEYEROWITZ: Well, for a medium that happens in a thousandth of a second, and then it’s gone, whatever you recognized in that brief glimpse of a fraction of a second, wasn’t really substantial enough to fix itself in your memory in any deep way - you only glanced off of it as you passed it by. That’s how it is for me, with street photography, or photography of the moment. The bringing up of the picture again, the printing of it, the studying of it, the using it in a book, finding its place - the right place in the flow of things, is an extension of the life of that millisecond. You now contemplate that as a fact, in and of itself, cause that’s all it is - it’s a fact, right? You’ve sustained that fact from 1977 and you’ve brought that into 2007, and it plays, it reads, it scans, it does whatever it does for you.

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I use pictures as a kind of building block of a visual language, so that it’s not the individual picture that’s the so-called “master work” the way painting created master works. These pictures are all little gestural elements that don’t necessarily add-up on their own to anything profound, but as a run of pictures, you might be able to sustain some thoughts and ideas. And I guess that’s what I always, since I understood Robert Frank’s “The Americans”, from the first few times looking at it, I suddenly understood, ‘oh, they don’t have to be great photographs, they have to be interesting and interlocking in a way that you could fuse them in runs of seven or ten pictures, to be stating a sort of collective of ideas into one thing that will carry the reader along.’

2point8: And you may not know where the run is going when you start, too.

MEYEROWITZ: Not at all. They’re very malleable. Before I lay out a book, I read the pictures many many times, until I’ve absorbed the so-called meaning of each picture. My feeling about it - not intellectually, but my gut feeling about these pictures and how I relate to them, and then I just collect them all as miniatures, at three inches across, and I carry them with me like a deck of cards, and I lay them out, everytime I have a few minutes, I lay them out - I’m doing it now, for this next book - I lay them out and look and look, and then I’ll see something that looks like a starting point. So I’ll put that picture first, and then I’ll see what happens. What does it call, like magnetism, to itself? And what do these two call themselves, and what do these three call? Because it’s not just about the next picture, it’s the weight of the three of them in a row. Five of them in a row. Ten! I can set-up certain rhythms or cadences, so that when you get to the third or fourth picture, you begin to realize the first picture again, like, ‘oh yeah, the first and fourth are linked!’ And there are these links so that if you were to make a drawing of this book, if there were forty pictures - I could probably make a diagram that comes after the fact, not before the fact, that the first connects to the fourth and the tenth and on and on - and that there are these interconnections. It’d be a fun thing to do, actually!

2point8: It’s a great idea!

MEYEROWITZ: You should take your favorite book and take it apart that way and see why it works that way. What is it about the rhythm of these pictures that make you see it as a book, rather than a collection of pictures. I think, too many photographers make books that are just collections of pictures. You could throw them together any way and they’d be alright. And there are other photographers that make books that are works of art, as a book.

2point8: Was Frank’s “The Americans” the first time you’d seen anything like that? What was it like, as a photographer, coming across that the first time?

MEYEROWITZ: Well, it was the very first photography book that I ever truly looked at and saw as a work. And it so astonished me and moved me and challenged me and aroused me. To this day, it is a singularly great work of art that I still sit down with, at least once a year, and just sit with it and see what comes up for me when I look at these pictures. Because things come up!

2point8: It tells you different things over time.

MEYEROWITZ: Yeah!

Here’s Part II. Thanks again to Joel Meyerowitz and the staff at Jackson Fine Art. All images above © Joel Meyerowitz. More Meyerowitz on 2point8.

Tag: Discussion