Joel Meyerowitz’s Perspective on the Art of Photography (Briefly)

Joel Meyerowitz

Joel Meyerowitz is among the most well-known photographers who’s ever lived. His work has been featured in publications and exhibitions around the world for the last half century, and it’s been sold into the finest public and private art collections.

From Meyerowitz’s photo book, WILD FLOWERS

One of Meyerowitz’s most well-known photo books, Cape Light, features snapshots from the Cape in the Truro-Provincetown area of Massachusetts, taken over the summers of 1976 & ’77. Along with the beautiful photos, the book also includes an interview between Bruce K. MacDonald and Meyerowitz, where in their discussion of the photographic process they shine a light on why Meyerowitz is so highly thought of within the discipline: his ability to take memorable pictures is a result of how much thought and effort he’s put into what it means to find layers in a frame before the shutter clicks.

I’ve transcribed some of my favorite exchanges from the interview, specifically the parts where Meyerowitz gets at the heart of what it takes to a great photographer, which doubles as what it takes to be a great artist. If there’s one thing that’s certain after reading Meyerowitz’s thought process, he deserves his place in the canon of photography.

The following has been edited for length.



MacDONALD: What do you hope for when you say [your own] work teaches you?

MEYEROWITZ: Well, you hope that by working – working out, working toward that – you’ll produce an opening, you’ll stumble through your senses upon a photograph that’s instructive – a doorway – something more than just beautiful, or well-made, or a combination of those elements that are photographically interesting – something that you can’t quite handle that possess you, something simple and visible but filled with mystery and promise – the mystery of “How did I know to make that?” – and the promise of a new understanding of photography and something about yourself.

These photographs are often the least beautiful: spare, sometimes empty of qualities that are more easily celebrated. One makes the other photographs on the way to these rare, irresistible images that claim your deepest attention. The trick is not to be seduced by the beautiful but to struggle against accomplishment and push toward something more personal. Shared beauty is not enough. One wants to go beyond those limits, not for the sake of invention, but for knowing.


July 22, ON THE DECK

MacDONALD: I’ve watched you work. Sometimes with a small camera you work so fast that you can’t entirely understand the situation in front of you, and the people being photographed don’t have time to react to the camera. You don’t bruise the situation.

MEYEROWITZ: The fact that the machine works at a 1000th of a second allows you to gesture at things radically, even before you know them … Sometimes I literally plunge into it, throw my whole body into the subject, the crowd moves away, and people spill into frame from the other side. I move the image off center, somehow turn away. I want to engage something that’s only peripheral in my eye. I fill the frame. And then when I get the picture back, I get what a full-blown gesture as a 1000th of a second sees.

MacDONALD: What do you mean by turn away?

MEYEROWITZ: I felt that most of street photography coming out of [Henri] Cartier-Bresson was aimed at locating an event in space with the camera, and singling it out, sometimes pointing at it by juxtaposing it to something else. But you know exactly what it is that’s being photographed. You know what the intention and the accomplishment of the photographer is. After years of doing that and getting faster at that kind of location, I began to feel like a visual athlete – making sensational catches, but having less to learn from. The more in touch I became with what I personally was interested in, the more I wanted to loosen up the frame. I had a sense of desperation.

About that same time when I was coming to consciousness – this was in the sixties – Fellini was my hero. Fellini taught me something else – a kind of organized chaos – his willingness to see everything come in front of the lens, to give it a certain amount of time and then turn away from it. That’s the turning away I learned about. Just think about the elaborate preparation he goes through to set up certain scenes – filled with grotesques, filled with motion, people moving forward toward and away from the camera. As they come by, he just makes a pass, and they’re off the screen in a split second. He wastes them. He knows, and trusts, that you will see it and feel the jolt as it crosses your vision and your awareness. He doesn’t have to hold on something for a great period of time for it to register. He doesn’t have to pummel you with what you see. He can just tantalize you with it, pass it in front of you, make you feel it. And I saw that, instead of making a picture of it, you can turn away from it and photograph something nearby, and include that in it, not making it the central subject of the picture. You can see what’s happening around it and, by its energy, it will draw people to looking at it. I was willing to take the risk. I wanted to make the frame alive—a place where you have to search to see.

Photographers deal with things that are always disappearing. We’re on the edge of knowing, and then only by a shred of feeling of almost no duration. The desperation is to find the form, the appropriate form for what you’re photographing, what you’re interested in, wherever you are! On the streets the search for the form is what drives me. Here on the Cape the need is the same, but I’m using a different tool.



MEYEROWITZ: What is the art experience about? Really I’m not interested in making “Art” at all. I never, ever, think about it. To say the word “Art,” it’s almost like a curse on art. I do know that I want to try to get closer to myself. The older I get, the more indications I have about what it is to get closer to yourself. You try less hard. I just want to be.

PLATE 15, PROVINCETOWN, from Cape Light
Joel Meyerowitz, as he was while capturing the images for Cape Light

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