Pin It
Joel Meyerowitz
“New York City” (1963)Courtesy and copyright of Joel Meyerowitz

How to shoot spontaneity on the streets

Legendary photographer Joel Meyerowitz reflects on a career that has seen him trekking the globe for more than 50 years

“I find myself in this place right now, where I feel like I’m floating in air, or just turning over and over on my way down and watching everything go by,” photographer Joel Meyerowitz laments slowly, his tongue carrying the weight of every syllable. “There isn’t much time ahead. I don’t know how much time there is but let’s just say ten years maybe, more or less, and so what am I going to do with this little piece that’s left? That’s where freefall seems to be such a joyous experience, because it’s like whatever comes, comes.” It’s in this contemplative vein that our conversation continues, as Meyerowitz’s calmative narrative takes us where it pleases.

His portfolio – which spans over 50 years – is filled with surreptitious photographs of human beings, shot often without them knowing he’s even there. “I think spontaneity is at the heart of what I understood photography to be about,” he explains. After beginning his career in the 60s as an art director, Meyerowitz gravitated towards photography having developed a fixation for ‘motion’. Earlier this month, his signature series, From A Moving Car (1968), Cape Light (1978), Aftermath: The World Trade Center Archive (2006) and more, were brought together in a single book retrospective titled Where I Find Myself. Authored by Meyerowitz, published by Laurence King Publishers and available now, Where I Find Myself is a comprehensive tome, tracing the photographer’s work to date with ‘inverse chronology’.

I wonder if Meyerowitz feels a sense of detachment looking back at old work from the 60s and 70s, as you would revisiting an old photo album. “I guess I’m far from where I started but I’m also connected to the root values that I began with,” he responds. Today, Meyerowitz remains driven in his art – poised to discover, as he puts it, new kinds of photographs. And, throughout his career, he has done just that, while providing snapshots of moments that might otherwise have disappeared into time.

LOOK FOR THE UNDERLYING STORIES, THEY ARE USUALLY THE MOST IMPORTANT

The cover image of Where I Find Myself has more lessons in it than just the catch of the moment. It’s very typical of the kind of work I was doing at the time. I was trying to jam the frame with as much information as possible while ensuring it remained cohesive. In this case, I saw a cluster of people by the Metro stop and my instinct whenever there is energy on the street is to go to it. As soon as I got into the little space where there was a clearing, the man with the hammer was stepping over the fallen man. I tried to make space for that crowd on the right-hand side and the guy with the bicycle and the kid walking by on the left too. I am always processing the near and far, not only the object moment but the incident moment. I am always trying to read the entirety of the frame, and so I managed to tilt the camera just a little bit to get the man cleaning the windows in the upper right-hand corner and you know, at the same time I thought, ‘why is nobody helping this guy on the floor?’ The greater story here is not the man on the floor, but that the crowd was frozen in a state of immobility, unable to help. That’s urban life for you, in many cases, people keep their distance. It’s ironic, isn’t it? We choose to live in cities because they are comforting, there’s society there and we are all social creatures, and yet we can be paralysed in a split second and do nothing to help a fellow citizen get up.”

BE SPONTANEOUS

“I think spontaneity is at the heart of what I understood photography to be about. This camera in my hand with a dial on it that says 1000th of a second, means you could try to make a moment of significance to yourself in a 1000th of a second. Which meant, in less than a blink of an eye you would reach for something that was expressing itself in front of me, and it was gone in a split second. And so, I have always felt that this kind of photographic experience was about spontaneity, immediacy – all of that. And yet, there have been a number of conceptual periods that I have worked in. One that was important to me was From A Moving Car – my first MoMA show. You know, when you’re driving and you’re travelling at 100km an hour and things are whizzing by outside, you suddenly realise that if you tried to stop the car they would be gone. I was photographing from inside the car and looking at things that were only visible for a fraction of a second. In a way, that conceptual framework allowed me to make thousands and thousands of photographs while I was driving rather than on my feet. You could say that this construct was in my mind beforehand, but the action of it was spontaneous all the time.”

“Pictures aren’t always successful when you know how to do something and then you let go of it and enter a place of open-ended doubt. But, if you believe in it (as I did), then you just keep pushing as if to say, ‘I am going to push these boundaries open’, and really, what else are you young for?” – Joel Meyerowitz

PUSH BACK AGAINST THE STANDARDS OF TIME

“I grew up in an era when abstract expressionism was about making huge canvases with marks all over. I think I probably wanted to make photographs of urban life that were about everything rather than a central motif or incident. I guess I wanted to make a risky kind of photograph that wasn’t beautiful but revealed the brutality of the city, and it was through this realisation that I came to a place where I thought: ‘Oh, I have arrived at an idea now’. And so, I started to produce non-hierarchical photographs that were not about one thing in the field, but everything in the field. It was hard to share this concept with my friends, such as Tony Ray-Jones and Garry Winogrand, who were still working in black and white and I was working in colour, and they were still working with incident and commentary and I was trying to give that up. Pictures aren’t always successful when you know how to do something and then you let go of it and enter a place of open-ended doubt. But, if you believe in it (as I did), then you just keep pushing as if to say, ‘I am going to push these boundaries open’, and really, what else are you young for? The young always form the avant-garde, they push back against tradition and I think that’s one of the markers of every period of development in art, there’s always a surge of younger, newer artists that are coming in and pushing back against the standards of the time that they have just lived through. I think that was what was on my mind at that time, I needed to push photography as I saw further.”

ALLOW IMPULSES TO TAKE YOU THERE

“When you’ve lived your whole life and you’re at a certain age like I am now, and you look back at your life, things seem to line up as if they were destined. Everything seems to have had a kind of alignment, one thing leading to another, naturally. It seems that every five to seven years a new seed of possibility came to me. With time you finally reach the point where that seed germinates, it’s like spring coming and the plants grow again because all they really needed was a little bit of sunlight and warm air. Then, you start to regenerate and I think photography, in some basic, natural way did that for me. It allowed me to reconsider thoughts I had, or impulses I felt, or observations I made and suddenly they became strong enough for me to say, ‘Oh, that’s where I am going’. I think at the heart of it, I have always trusted my instinct.”

CONSIDER OTHER ASPECTS OF PHOTOGRAPHY

“I find myself (very much like the title of the book) in Tuscany, away from big cities. I’m actually making still lifes and I’m thinking – what the hell am I doing making still lifes? For over 50 years, I have been on the streets, not touching the world but letting it play upon my consciousness. And now, I find myself moving old, cast off objects around on a table top. Ironically, I don’t feel as if it’s that far away from my core identity. Throughout my life, questions from photography have arisen and awakened me to consider other aspects. First, it was street photography, then photography from a moving car, then I was trying to capture an entire field rather than an incident and then I wound up making portraits. Now I’m at a point where I’m making portraits of objects. I’m trying to find their soul, their spirit, because if you rotate an object, especially one that has lived for some time, signs of its own history quickly become apparent. I’m asking myself the question, can I find some quality of being in these objects worth commenting? Secondly, I’m not trying to make beautiful still lifes in the Dutch or Renaissance tradition. I am trying to find an energy between objects that I think comes from my experience on the street. The way people cluster or spread, the density of crowds and the individuals around the perimeter of the crowds. So, I’ve been using that as a sort of figure-ground way of taking these still lifes to describe power, energy, or momentum, rather than the conventional kind of beauty of fruits on the table with silverware and strong lighting.”

AND DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE FREEFALL 

“I’m a swimmer, I’ve always been a long distance open water swimmer and one of the things about swimming is that it is like freefall. When you’re in the ocean and you’re swimming in the open water there are currents, wind, seaweed, fish, and waves, and you're a single person out there against all of that nature. You’re ploughing through it with the kind of freedom that comes from being in this huge element. There’s something so meditative and expansive about that. And I think at this moment when I have just turned 80-years-old, and I am living in a foreign country and I am making new work and learning a new language, well I feel like that kind of passage through this element of time is wide and open. It seems to be offering me a chance to do whatever I want. I can not be held back by the structure I am working in. I find myself in this freefall and I love it!”

Subscribe to the Dazed newsletterGet the day on Dazed straight to your inbox