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