Photographer Interviews


Joel Meyerowitz on What He’s Learned: Part II

January 28, 2013

By Interview David Walker

© Joel Meyerowitz

From Joel Meyerowitz's "Empire State" series: "New York City, 1978." 

On the publication of his new, two-volume monograph Taking My Time, Joel Meyerowitz talked to PDN’s David Walker about the evolution of his photography, from his earliest street photography to his large-format work. In Part II of the conversation, Meyerowitz recounts some important turning points in his life and his career, and why he wanted to revisit his 50-year archive.
(You can see Part I of our interview with Joel Meyerowitz, and view a slide show of his work, here.)

PDN: Can you describe your new book, Taking My Time?
Joel Meyerowitz:
In the making of this 50-year retrospective book, I decided that I wanted to lay the book out in some way [that] showed the changes in photography over the last 50 years, and my own understanding of myself as an artist and a human being.
We all grow. If you are involved in any medium profoundly, you find yourself having to let go of things you do well. If you take the risk, you move on. So sometimes it’s a decision that comes from a period of time, and sometimes it’s a decision that comes from a photograph. You don’t always know it at the moment that it happens. You sometimes have to have that picture insert itself in your consciousness again and again and every time you look at it you think, “I’m going to throw this in the garbage,” and then you can’t. I call those sticky finger pictures. Pictures stick to you because there’s some latent meaning that you haven’t quite gleaned just yet. You have to kind of grow into it.

PDN: Why was it important to trace your development as a photographer rather than just show your best work?
JM:
I’m a living photographer, thank god, and this is my chance to talk about the work and the process, rather than leaving it to a curator or a historian to look at the pictures and make their deductions. Now that the pictures are out there, anybody can say anything they damn please about the evolution, what I did or didn’t do, but I felt it was important—since I’m a verbal person and I’ve been thrilled by the medium to this very moment—to try to talk about it and in a sense demystify it.

You often hear people talking about the intricacies and the mechanics of the medium, more than about the emotional content—the ephemeral characteristics of the way time and moments change. I felt that ambiguity is an important characteristic in my work, as it is in life itself.

PDN: Can you recount the story of how you got your start in photography?
JM:
I think it’s really indicative of those life-changing moments that are based on pure instinct. I was a painter, studying art history in graduate school, and had a day job as an assistant junior art director in a small agency in New York City. We had a company that I designed a booklet for. And my boss, said to me, “OK, we’re going to shoot your booklet, and I’ve hired a photographer to do it. Go to this address …” So I get there and I meet this guy Robert Frank—a kind of crusty, snarly guy. He said, “Yeah, OK, what do you want? This is the booklet?” He laid it out and he started shooting. Basically, he ignored me.

And I was watching over his shoulder, and he moved and took photographs at the same time, and that was for me the eye-opener, because my experience with photography, as limited as it was, was about people shooting models, and saying to them, “Hold that pose. Turn your head. Bring in the wind machine so the hair blows.” Everything was fake and it was the last thing I could care about. But when I saw him move and press the button, and each time I heard that little Leica click go off, I would see something that one of his subjects was doing—putting on lipstick, or taking a bite of a cookie, or bending over her homework. They all seemed to have drama to them. It was just thrilling to me to see that you could stop life with a camera.
I left the shoot, I went out on the street and every innocent gesture seemed to have portent to me. I thought: My god, the world is incredibly rich with these opportunities. And it was as if the skin had been peeled off my eyes. And by the time I got back to my office, I knew that I wanted to be a photographer. And I went up to my boss, he said, “So how did the shoot go?” I said, “It was terrific. It was really terrific. Harry, I’m quitting on Friday. I want to be a photographer.” He opened his drawer and he took out his camera and he said, “Here, use this until you get a camera.”

There I was in the world and I didn’t know what to take a picture of, but I had these few instincts, you know: watch people. They’re going to do something totally unexpected and surprising, and if you’re quick you might be able to get a picture of it. So that’s basically how it began.
 
PDN: Why did you go to Europe, and why was that so important to you?
JM:
Some guy hired me to shoot a small ad campaign, and it got bigger and bigger, and I made $29,000. [I had been earning] $6,000 a year, and suddenly this job comes along and I make 29 grand. Unbelievable! I was married at the time and I said, “Let’s take the money and run away. Let’s go to Europe.” And so we went away for a year. It was my coming of age year, you know?

PDN: How was it important to you in terms of becoming a photographer?
JM:
I learned how to be a man, actually, in some essential way. This friend was writing a book on gypsies in Spain, and he said, “If you ever come to Spain, come and see me.” We wound up living in Malaga with gypsies for six months. My wife studied guitar with a flamenco master and I roamed the streets. And one of the things I learned there is that “you spend yourself freely,”—[that’s] how the Spaniards would put it. This is your life; spend it. What are you holding onto it for? Just use it! Live it! Very interesting philosophy, and very open hearted, I felt, and that changed the character of my photography. In a way you go away to see who you become.

PDN: Can you put in words how it changed the character of your photography?
JM:
I was more open to the unpredictability of everything. More willing to just, on the slightest whim, change direction, do something, rather than [being] an organized observer, where you tell stories or you do bodies of work that are proscribed by your sense of what’s going to happen. I just went out every day and I wandered the streets and I let chance blow me where it would.

PDN: What made you move [from 35mm] to the view camera?
JM:
What I wanted [was] a greater degree of description because, when I started making these new kinds of pictures [which Meyerowitz describes in Part 1 as “non-hierarchical,” “not unlike field paintings”], I started making large dye transfers. And they showed everything, to the degree that I thought: I want these even bigger. I wanted wall size, because the film had the capacity to show that. But I couldn’t print bigger than that because it was far too expensive to make a dye transfer. To give you some idea, a dye transfer in 1974 was $350 to make a print. If you extrapolated that to today, that would be $3,500 for a print. I couldn’t afford to make tons of dye transfers. So I thought, I’ve got to get myself a camera where I can shoot color negative film so I can print. I kept on thinking to myself: Shit, I don’t want to use a tripod, I’m a street photographer, but if I have to use a tripod, I might as well get an 11 x 14 camera, if I’m going to do this. So I went looking for an 11 x 14 camera, and I only found an 8 x 10, so I bought it. I decided: I’m making this leap in the name of description.

A friend of mine said, “Look, why don’t you go to Cape Cod, [Massachusetts]? It’s got a main street in Provincetown. It’s just like 8th street—full of street life. You can shoot all you want there. And it’s a good place for your kids.” So I went to Cape Cod and it turned me around.

I realized I had another dimension to my character. I was fast and jazzy on the street; I was always moving. And at the same time there was always a part of me that loved the meditative stillness of drinking in, being in one place, and looking at something. Because when you stand up an 8 x 10 camera and you go under the dark cloth and enter the theater of that space, it’s beautiful. It’s thrilling. You are immediately in communion with [Eugène] Atget and August Sander and Edward Weston. You’re in communion with the greats, and you suddenly find that they knew something that you didn’t know they knew. Because I never thought about 8 x 10, I thought, you know, the eye-rolling thing: Oh, the old guys on the West Coast with the kelp and the sea shells and the nudes in the dunes, the dark skies, Ansel [Adams]. Lighten up! I was like: Who cared about them? Old fuddy duddies. And suddenly there I was, saying, “This is beautiful.” You could see everything and it’s all being rendered at f/90. I made every picture at f/90.

PDN: I wanted to ask about the “Empire State Building Series.” Once again, the camera was forcing you to change how you were shooting, right?
JM:
Absolutely. Two months [after going to Cape Cod] I was back in New York City and I was thinking: I love this camera. How could I make this camera work in Manhattan? It’s too slow, basically, for action. I don’t know how it happened, but at some point I came across [Katsushika] Hokusai’s “36 Views of Mount Fuji.” If you look at that work, Hokusai was probably the first street photographer, before street photography, because his drawings are all about life on the Hokkaido Road, and it’s all about peddlers and fishers and farmers and geishas and bandits and warriors and rich men. And they’re all out there on the road, and they’re doing business. They’re selling things, they’re reaping things, they’re fucking in the fields, they’re killing each other: Life on the Hokkaido Road. And in the background, Mount Fuji. It sits there in mist and rain and storm and sun and lightning, and it’s always present. I remember looking at that work and thinking: Suppose I took the Empire State Building, and I cast it as Mount Fuji. And then, that was my nominal subject: the Empire State Building. And then I use it as a pylon, and I go around it from close up to far away in Queens. And I just looked at life wherever I found it, in relation to the Empire State Building. It was a way of giving me the street without having to make street photographs like I used to make. And it allowed me to work with everything in the frame, near and far, which is sort of what I was trying to do with those last street pictures, the non-hierarchical pictures.

PDN: The title of your book suggests photographing your time, but also a deliberate unwillingness to hurry.
JM:
Taking My Time was a title that just popped into my mind one day when I was looking at all of the work and I was dividing it into the segments that evolved every so many years. Almost every seven years or so, I would have a kind of revolution in my work, and I’ve realized that I’ve never been in a hurry. I’m fast, when I’m on the street. When I was a kid playing ball, when I swam, I was fast. But in terms of the way I think about things, and the way I evolve, I took my time and I let the clues come to me and rise up in my consciousness in some way. I like to kind of mull it over, and see how it goes. And I realized that I never rushed to publish a book, I never rushed to get a job done, I don’t like to give myself a named subject to do. I like to let things accrue naturally. And so, in fact, I had taken my time.

That’s what happens when you’re actually living your life and you’re not in a race. What’s the race? To where? To [what] end? I don’t want to get to the end too fast. I want to enjoy the languor of just living, recognizing, acknowledging, taking it in, sort of amplifying it in some way. [Photography] is a great medium for that. It happens in an instant, but it gives you hours or days of time to reflect on things. It’s a beautiful system, this game of photography, to see in an instant and go back and think about later on. It’s pure philosophy. And poetry.

Related Article:
Joel Meyerowitz on What He’s Learned, Part I (with Photo Gallery)