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Joel Meyerowitz’s Career Is a Minihistory of Photography

By Teju Cole

 

1. Now wait a second, is this magic? Or has it all been carefully arranged with actors, lighting and special effects? The truth is more surprising: It’s neither. It’s simply a picture snapped by Joel Meyerowitz on a New York City street one day in 1975. No faces are immediately evident, just figures in camel-colored coats turned away from us, a puff of smoke with two people suspended in it. No, four people, if you count those shadows, six if you count the backs on which the shadows fall. In fact there are seven people, if we count the additional shadow in the foreground, the photographer’s — and further figures emerge as the eye adjusts to the deep background. It is a picture that just won’t sit still.

 

Meyerowitz began to work as a street photographer in the early 1960s and quickly became a virtuoso of the craft. He was inspired by the example of Robert Frank, whose work was full of poetic melancholy, though what first struck Meyerowitz was the balletic grace with which Frank moved while photographing. Later, he went out roaming with Garry Winogrand, who was frenetic and indefatigable. A great street photographer needs two distinct talents: the patience to lie in wait for unanticipated moments and the skill to catch them with the click of a shutter. Meyerowitz had both, whether he was shooting in black and white or in color. The color work is what he’s better known for, photographs that, to begin with, were brash and often jubilant, a world away from Frank’s gloom.

 

In many of his images from the 1960s and 1970s, everything falls into place in a witty or amazing way. Some of them are like a good joke that can be told more than once, or like a quick little fable. “New York City, 1975” rises above this group of early pictures by being less a smart one-liner and more an open-ended koan: declarative to begin with, but then becoming charged with some palpable but elusive wisdom. Certain pictures are easy to see but hard to make.

 

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2. This is my idea of heaven: the uncluttered interior of a house on a summer’s day, light and silence. One door opens out to another, and beyond that another, the final door revealing greenery outside. In a bedroom off to one side, partly visible, is a bed with a white blanket. Pale rugs line the hardwood floor and framed pictures hang on the off-white walls; the whole ensemble as compact as a short story.

 

Hard to believe that this picture was made by the same man responsible for an agile photograph like “New York City, 1975.” “Hartwig House, Truro, Massachusetts, 1976” was made only one year later, but something has certainly changed in Meyerowitz’s seeing. What remains is an extreme visual eloquence, an eloquence that is also there in the way he talks about photography and in the way he teaches. (I took a weekend master class with him years ago, and I’ve yet to meet anyone who matches his ability to describe what is happening in a given photograph.)

 

The photo of the Hartwig House is the first photograph Meyerowitz made with an 8-by-10-inch view camera. Certain small stylistic adjustments are expected when subject matter shifts, and for photographers, this is a difference often heralded by a change of camera. With a tripod and much larger negative, the “action” in the picture is now all in the thoughtfulness and calm description, the warm light that suffuses everything, the unfailing verticals of the doors and walls.

 

Susan Sontag once noted that “seeing tends to accommodate to photographs.” Once the thrill of originality fades, we are often left with the merely picturesque. A landscape by Edward Weston is absorbing; a landscape in the style of Weston less so. Diane Arbus revolutionized portraiture, but her numerous imitators cannot command our interest to the same degree.

 

The renovation of photography’s possibilities happens generationally. But within this slow evolution are faster cycles, certain artists who keep it moving so that their individual oeuvres come to constitute minihistories of photography: artists like Paul Strand, Berenice Abbott and Joel Meyerowitz.

 

 

3. Some communication has happened between the young woman in blue and the photographer. In the swirl of the party, she had, like him, been moving, evidence of which is captured in the photograph: one leg is placed in front of another. But she read the photographer’s eyes, which had pleaded with her to hold her pose, and for the duration of time that the camera’s aperture is open, she does hold still. There’s a second woman, on the left, who also meets the photographer’s glance and is also still, but her look is blurred. The woman in blue, centrally placed, standing in contrapposto next to a tree, direct and crisp in her gaze, becomes the story.

 

Meyerowitz does something unusual with the view camera here: He uses its slowness, its difficulty with moving subjects, as an asset. He has become interested not only in the descriptive power of the large camera but in the technical limits of what it can do. “Cocktail Party, Wellfleet, Massachusetts, 1977” is related to the photograph of the Truro interior both in its format and in the emphasis on verticals. But the light-filled house is suspended in time like an afternoon in which the clocks have stopped, and there’s nothing to prove that it’s not a photo from 1987 or 1997 or yesterday. The party, meanwhile, is quite obviously of that moment, that fraction of a second it took for the image of the young woman and the blur around her to be registered. We may wonder where all those people are now, more than 40 years on.

 

4. “Five More Found, New York City, 2001” brings to mind Rembrandt’s “Night Watch” or one of those complex tableaux by Jacques-Louis David. The setting and its drama — a drama of vertiginous darkness and theatrical lighting — emphasize the environment more than the numerous small-scaled people present. The image, made as part of Meyerowitz’s “Aftermath: World Trade Center Archive,” which he began working on in the days after the Sept. 11 attacks, records a particularly sad moment: The “five more found” are firefighters, dead in the rubble.

 

It is a photograph that, like many others in the project, approaches the sublime. But I find more to admire than to love in it. It is straightforward in form, stately in appearance, awesome in subject but ultimately dutiful in effect. But perhaps this isn’t entirely regrettable. The very last thing you want in a photograph of the ruins of the World Trade Center is some obnoxious individuality.

 

In reading artists, we ought to focus more on what they intend than on the stylistic gestures that help us identify their works. Meyerowitz is certainly stylish — there is always a formal clarity in his work — but he can’t be pinned down to two or three styles. His oeuvre is as varied as any among contemporary photographic masters, but this is not a matter of restlessness. The variety is organically related to whatever he is exploring at any given point. He changes because he must.

 

5. A gray skull sits on a gray table with a gray wall as the backdrop. There is no supporting cast and there are no special lights, just the object itself, set down, more interesting for what it means than for how it looks.

 

We can never really see our own faces as they are seen by others. Even mirrors, photographs and videos place us at a certain distance from our own faces. And harder to see is the skull behind the face; an X-ray is at best an approximation. You would have to be dead to really see your own skull, an inescapable paradox.

 

This skull was photographed by Meyerowitz in Aix-en-Provence. The photograph is in fact half of a diptych titled “Cézanne’s Studio (Skull and Void), 2013.” We don’t know the name of the human being whose macabre fate was to become a prop in an artist’s studio. The skull is most likely one of three that Cézanne painted several times. The attraction of Cézanne’s studio for Meyerowitz lies in part in the flattening effect of those gray walls. Photographing the individual objects in natural light against that wall, he explores some of the plainness of setting that may have helped Cézanne intensify his proto-cubist approach to still life.

 

What a tremendous stylistic gulf there is between this skull and the photograph of the New York City camel coats from 1975. Here, simplicity reigns. The complications are pared down and the jokes and puzzles are dropped, as are the grand visions. This is a quiet world, but not the sweet quiet of the Hartwig House, in which human presence is at least implied. The skull and its accompanying void inhabit a more abstract reality, a statement stripped of all superfluity.

 

Joel Meyerowitz, nearly 80 now, must, from time to time, give thought to mortality. But the vision in his recent pictures (he has also made a series about objects in the studio of the painter Giorgio Morandi) is dispassionate, not tragic. Certain pictures are easy to make but hard to see. A skull, a table, a wall: In this latest of his numerous styles, Meyerowitz moves from what it means to look to what it means to have looked. The skull on one side of the diptych suggests it, and the void on the other leaves no doubt.