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Joel Meyerowitz chats to Dig­i­tal Cam­era about street life

First, con­grat­u­la­tions on your 80th birth­day. How do you feel about it? It’s been grat­i­fy­ing for me reach­ing 80 and not feel­ing what I thought 80 must feel like. I’m at that time of my life when work­ing is fun. It al­ways has been, but there’s some­thing about now, at this age, that makes me feel I can do what­ever I want. My sense of play and en­ergy feels re­ally good, and liv­ing here in Tus­cany, where my wife and I have lived for four years, is re­ward­ing and in­spir­ing. It’s a very pro­duc­tive, pos­i­tive time.

In your youth, was art and draw­ing your main in­ter­est?

As a lit­tle kid, I drew car­toons and air­planes and all the stuff from the comic books. My fa­ther could ren­der and draw in a clas­si­cal way. It al­ways fas­ci­nated me to watch him make some­thing ap­pear on pa­per out of thin air, or model things with clay or even snow. So draw­ing was just part of what I did.

Then I went to art school to study art his­tory and paint­ing, so in a way my vo­cab­u­lary was from the art world. I didn’t dis­cover pho­tog­ra­phy un­til I was 24. Why did you choose to shoot on the streets?

I grew up as a street kid in the work­ing-class ar­eas of the Bronx. The street was where ev­ery­thing hap­pened. When I was work­ing as a ju­nior art direc­tor for an ad­ver­tis­ing agency in New York,

ev­ery lunchtime I would get a sand­wich and just walk around the streets of New York. I’d be look­ing for ideas I might want to put in a paint­ing. One day I bor­rowed my boss’s cam­era, bought a cou­ple of rolls of colour film and just wan­dered around on Fifth Av­enue, tak­ing pic­tures. I had no idea there was any­thing like street pho­tog­ra­phy. All I knew was I wanted to do it. I was just like a dumb kid with a cam­era, try­ing to fig­ure out how to make pic­tures out there, where I liked to be.

You quit your job and took up pho­tog­ra­phy in 1962, af­ter watch­ing Robert Frank on an ad­ver­tis­ing shoot. What was so in­spi­ra­tional about that ex­pe­ri­ence?

Robert was shoot­ing the im­ages for a book­let I had de­signed. He was pho­tograph­ing two young girls in an apart­ment, while they were do­ing things like putting on make-up or home­work.

I didn’t know who he was, and I knew zero about pho­tog­ra­phy. But when I saw Robert work, the thing that spoke to me more than any­thing else was the fact that he made pho­to­graphs, while he moved, of things that were mov­ing and dis­ap­pear­ing. Ev­ery time I heard the click of the cam­era, what I could see over his shoul­der seemed to be a mo­ment that had reached a peak of ges­ture. In a sense, you

“I was just like a dumb kid with a cam­era, try­ing to fig­ure out how to make pic­tures out there, where I liked to be”

could say the fac­tor of time and move­ment be­came like the ar­row that went into me.

How did your street work de­velop? On the sec­ond day I was pho­tograph­ing, I went to the lab to pick up my film and there was an­other hairy, bearded guy like me there, and we started look­ing at each other’s pic­tures. This was Tony Ray-Jones.

We started to hang out and would go out shoot­ing to­gether. We taught our­selves how to get the right ex­po­sure, how to be fast, how close to get to peo­ple and how to edit our work.

Was it an ex­hil­a­rat­ing feel­ing to be do­ing some­thing new?

It was the purest form of hunger I have ever ex­pe­ri­enced. We were so deliri­ous with our pas­sion for be­ing out there and our hunger to see more, but we couldn’t stop. Ev­ery day when the light faded, we’d get some­thing to eat and go down to Times Square, be­cause it’s full of light, so we could work both in colour and in black and white at night.

Since then, your work has in­cluded ev­ery­thing from serene im­ages of Cape Cod to scenes of dev­as­ta­tion af­ter the World Trade Cen­ter at­tacks. Does any­thing link this di­verse body of work?

That’s a re­ally good ques­tion. I think there is a link. I would say there’s a kind of joy that I ex­pe­ri­ence when I’m out in the world, wher­ever I am, with a cam­era in my hand. I feel such a sense of up­lift and an­tic­i­pa­tion.

It must be some child-like in­no­cence that I still ex­pe­ri­ence, no mat­ter how much the world has shown me its hard parts, its sad­ness and ev­ery­thing else. So I think the link is an ap­petite for see­ing what’s next, some­thing that might be both in­ter­est­ing pho­to­graph­i­cally and re­ward­ing in hu­man terms. What projects are you cur­rently work­ing on?

Af­ter do­ing still-life work in my books Mo­randi’s Ob­jects and Cezanne’s Ob­jects, I’m do­ing more still-life im­ages, but they’re very dif­fer­ent. It’s as if I needed to learn the vo­cab­u­lary of still-life, just like the vo­cab­u­lary of the street. Just this last week I’ve made a whole new start on some­thing where I’m us­ing a worn 200-year old door as my still-life ta­ble.

I find my­self en­ter­ing a very new idea of what to make a still-life out of. I feel emo­tion­ally con­nected to the ob­jects I’m work­ing with; I feel their spirit, rather than their beauty or their form.

You’ve re­cently launched your first on­line pho­tog­ra­phy course with Masters of Pho­tog­ra­phy. What does the course in­volve? It’s a 34-mod­ule, five-and-a-halfhour video. The mod­ules in­clude ones about street pho­tog­ra­phy, learn­ing how to be in­vis­i­ble, how to move, how to be in the right place at the right time and how to find your­self in na­ture. I look at ques­tions like, what’s a por­trait, how do you make a still-life, how do you in­spire your­self, how do you cre­ate a body of work and learn how to edit it to make a book or an ex­hi­bi­tion. Ba­si­cally, all the things that peo­ple have asked me for the last 50 years. I de­cided to put that in­for­ma­tion into a for­mat that is in­cred­i­bly in­ti­mate, where I talk right to the cam­era so you feel I’m speak­ing di­rectly to you.

What’s the most im­por­tant thing you teach?

I’d say the most im­por­tant as­pect of this whole course is that I try to help peo­ple un­der­stand that ev­ery­one

has their own iden­tity, just like ev­ery­one has their own thumbprint. If you try to un­der­stand what that is, you will be­come the artist you want to be­come.

Why is your new ret­ro­spec­tive book, Where I Find My­self, or­gan­ised in chap­ters that go back­wards in time?

The way I view it is that when we start out do­ing any­thing, we have no idea where we’re go­ing to go with it, or what’s go­ing to come next. But when you’ve lived life long enough and you look back over your ca­reer, you be­gin to see how things have fallen into line. Not a straight line, a curvy line – but none­the­less these things link up in ways that were in­vis­i­ble on the jour­ney for­ward.

So I thought, why don’t I try to write my au­to­bi­og­ra­phy in pic­tures, from the per­spec­tive of where I find my­self now? The ti­tle is a play on the fact that pho­tog­ra­phy has taught me ev­ery­thing I knew. I re­ally dis­cov­ered my­self through pho­tog­ra­phy, and I’ve of­ten been sur­prised at where it’s taken me.

Above New York City 1965.

Above (Top) Iron­work­ers, New York City, 2001. From Joel’s project doc­u­ment­ing the af­ter­math of the World Trade Cen­ter at­tacks.

Mid­dle New York City, 1978.

Above New York City, 1975.

Top Dairy Land, Province­town, Mas­sachusetts, 1976. From Joel’s in­flu­en­tial book Cape Light.

Above Hartwig House, Truro, Mas­sachusetts, 1976. Also from Cape Light.

Above White Road, Tus­cany, 2002.

Above ‘The Bride and Her Suitors’, 2013. From Joel’s Teatrino still-life se­ries.

WhereIFindMy­self is pub­lished by Lau­rence King, price £45. For more of his work, visit www.lau­rencek­ing. com/en/joelmeyerowitz

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