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Joel Meyerowitz Interview (Part 2)

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 on 2point8; please read Part 1. 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: 515CZYCAN1L._AA240_ Can you tell me a bit about how Bystander came about? Did you sit down and say, ‘the world really needs a book on the history of street photography, let’s do it!?!’

MEYEROWITZ: Well, not precisely, but that’s pretty close. I was going through this change in the 70s, from 35mm black & white to color. A return to color, for me. And my working methods needed to change, because shooting black and white, rated-up at 1000, and shooting color rated at ASA 25 were two very different speed and space experiences on the streets of New York. So, I had to be slower. And if I wanted to have any kind of depth of field, I had to be further away. So when I made this discovery that this is how I needed to work, I wondered, to myself, in the history of photography, surely other workers had a similar kind of experience, where they wanted to increase a quality, and they had to give up some assets to do it.

So, I started looking, and I found a number of other surprising places where photographers were making very open-ended, non-event oriented centered photographs. In fact, if you look at the frontice of Bystander, there’s a tiny little Steiglitz picture in Paris. Only made 107 years ago, and to me, it was exactly like the pictures I was making in color, in New York in 1974. And I thought, “oh, he must have been experiencing a similar kind of feeling about timing and space.”

The more I looked, the more I thought about it, and the more I thought photography needed a book about street photography. Because it was an undervalued art form. So many people said, “oh, you shoot that from the hip? That’s a snapshot?” They’d say to Garry all the time, “you ever look through the camera?” Garry was a good friend of mine. I walked the streets with him for years and I know he looked through the camera!

So street photography needs some support here, and I did some research by myself, and at the same time I became friendly with Colin Westerbeck, who was a neighbor, and we were raising our kids at the same time. He was involved in film criticism and literature, and in our conversations, I got him excited about photography - the problems I was posing and everything. And he was a real academic, had a PhD in literature. And I said, ‘maybe you want to collaborate with me - this is the book I want to make, and we could do research…” So we formed a team and worked on this for many many years. Too many years. The book is not what I originally had envisioned, it’s the hybrid that comes out of two people bouncing ideas off each other, and I think it’s a lovely and maybe a definitive work about street photography.

2point8: Personally speaking, and from folks I know, Bystander’s a wealthy resource. It keeps giving.

MEYEROWITZ: Well, we dug into a lot of social things of the times, and speculated on different qualities of life at different periods and how photography intersected with all of it. And that’s really Colin’s gift to the book. I did the picture runs and relationships, and tried to make my essays out of the photographs. His essays came from all of our conversations, and his writing, and then we both edited. We kept going back and forth. I’d give him my runs of pictures and he’d give me the chapters. I would clean it up my way, then his way, and it was a great interaction. We loved doing the work that way, and both of us deeply miss the company of the other.

2point8: Your current show that’s up at Jackson Fine Art. As we did the walk-thru, we were talking a lot about the archival pigment printing of the pictures that are up there. On the camera and enthusiast side of things, digital is definitely remaking photography in many ways. I’m curious what you see as happening in photography in terms of popularity; the art market that didn’t exist for photography back in the 60s has exploded - where do you see all of these things going?

JOEL MEYEROWITZ Young Dancer, NYC, 1978MEYEROWITZ: Photography’s always been a very democratic medium. In the sense that the camera’s the same. It used to be 35mm, and now it’s digital. The camera’s the same, though - people pick it up and use it, like a fountain pen. Everybody writes something with it; a check, a story, a prescription. It’s writing. And photography’s the same - it’s democratic in that way. Everyone can use it, but not everyone makes art. I think what’s happened digitally, is that there’s been this huge explosion of access to imagery because you can print them at home. Or you can put them up on flickr and share pictures this way. So it both expands the market, and not necessarily makes it that much more interesting or better or artful, but it brings more and more people into it, so there’s a greater possibility of someone discovering their voice.

2point8: There’s definitely an explosion, not just of digital, but in these little subsections, of even something like street photography, people are looking backwards and seeing what’s been done, and looking ahead and trying to figure out how they can go about making work that knows its past and moves forward. There’s a lot of it going on right now, it’s an exciting time.

MEYEROWITZ: Yeah, it is! It’s been enriched. The potential for more interesting artists, just like it is for filmmakers - if you can put together a movie with iMovie and your little digital camera, you might discover the meaning of film for the next generation, and make a contribution toward pushing the language along. And the same is true about photography. It both lowers the quality on one hand, and it expands the universe of workers, especially because you can make prints and slideshows and all that stuff! It used to be that you had to borrow a slide projector, because not everyone owned a slide projector.

2point8: You were talking about cameras and pictures as a language, and being able to say things and shape them. In your own work, are you more interested in saying things that might be poems, or saying things that might tell stories? Where do you fall on that?

JOEL MEYEROWITZ Dusk, Provincetown, 1976MEYEROWITZ: I don’t fall into the story realm myself, because I don’t think in storylines. I think that photography is probably closest to poetry and music. I see very often a kind of musical notation when I put pictures together. I think of it in some kind of lyrical form. And I think individual pictures are closer to poetry in the way they’re read and the meaning they shed. I’ve always found them to be non-narrative objects. That’s why they always had to have captions underneath them. Nobody could figure out what was going on.

2point8: Or that’s why “the run” can come together, because you can’t have a run of things that immediately make sense on their own, necessarily.

MEYEROWITZ: Right. So they’re little fragments of poetry and they make you feel a certain way, and you put ten of them together, by the time you get to the tenth one, you have a dark emotion, or you feel lighthearted, or you feel something’s working.

Thanks again to Joel Meyerowitz and the staff at Jackson Fine Art. All images above © Joel Meyerowitz. Please see Part 1 of this interview.

Tag: Discussion