Where Joel Meyerowitz Finds Himself
By Brigid Kapuvari
This March, Joel Meyerwitz released his book “Where I Find Myself,” which encompasses the entirety of his photography career. Best known for his street photography, Meyerowitz has a knack for honing in on the spectacular amid the mundane and has traveled across the globe to capture every instance of it. In the following interview, Meyerwitz discusses with Musée Magazine his journey thus far in regards to uncovering the virtues of photography.
How did you discover your love for photography?
In 1962, I was a New York painter working as a junior art director at a small advertising agency. I had no interest in photography. However, one day, I designed a booklet for the advertising agency, and my boss hired the photographer, Robert Frank, to photograph the subject of this booklet.
I went down to the location on the lower east side of Manhattan, and I watched Robert photograph two young girls after school doing their homework, having milk and cookies, putting on make-up, playing basically. The way he worked was such a revelation to me. Whenever I heard the click of the camera, it seemed to me as if the moment in front of Robert had reached an epiphany: some critical moment of revelation where the most innocent gesture or facial expression seemed to have meaning or beauty or content or presence.
And when I left the shoot, life on the street was visible to me in a way that it hadn’t been before.
Why did you decide to tell your career in reverse chronological order in “Where I Find Myself”?
If you’ve done something for fifty years, you can stand in the present moment and look back over all the different turns and changes. And so, I thought I would make this book from the perspective of looking backwards, and seeing how did I get to each of these places, which is why I called the book “Where I Find Myself.” It’s really a double entendre. Photography is the medium that has given me this opportunity to find myself, my identity, and it’s constantly put me in places that I never expected to be.
I noticed that a majority of your images are so ordinary. Not ordinary as in boring, but there’s more of a focus on capturing the moment plainly as it is.
I’m a much more visceral, physical, spontaneous person who trusts that the world is far more inventive and creative than I could ever be. Reality consists of 360 degrees in every single direction, but a camera puts a 70-degree rectangle into that circle. And so, when you put that rectangle to your eye, you’re going to leave out a lot. Within the frame, a whole bunch of things do not relate to each other. Only in your vision do these things come into relationship, and I think that my photographs are about precisely that. They’re about relationships, but relationships that happen only for me.
Do you have a project that you consider your favorite?
The work I did at Ground Zero. In 2001, a few days after the towers were struck, I returned to New York. As a native, I wanted to do my part. And by chance, I was told not to take any photographs near the site because Mayor Guliani had determined that no photography would be allowed. I thought, How dare you deny us the first amendment rights we all have and how dare you
After 9 months of basically living inside of Ground Zero, I created the only history of everything that went on in Ground Zero, and what I learned doing that—the things that I saw, the people I met, the friends that I made, the body of work that developed, the way it went out into the world—the whole experience was life-changing.
What was the greatest takeaway from “Where I Find Myself”?
There’s a couple of things that are interestingly challenging to me, and one of them has been hidden for a very long time. “Where I Find Myself” has given me the impetus to actually make an exhibition out of it. The Tate Modern has just come on board. This project is called “A Question of Color.”
The first film I put in the camera was color—mainly because I didn’t know any better. I was just a dumb kid. In the following year, people were saying, “You should be shooting in black and white.” I thought, This is crazy. I was trying to prove that color was the equal of black and white.
After a year, I was able to afford a second camera, and for four or five years, I photographed always with two cameras. If a moment appeared that had just enough extended moment to it, I would make a color and a black and white one.
These photographs are a turning point in our understanding of the role of color in contemporary photography. It locates this as the first time someone asked the question of “Why color?” It’s an important aspect of the history of photography that needs to be redefined, and I’m hoping that this book and the exhibition will do just that.
What do you strive to accomplish with your photography?
I’m an optimist. I’ll run down the street towards something because I feel this bubbling energy. And so, there’s a kind of urgency and physical speed that makes my work.
People have said to me, “When I look at your photograph, Joel, I feel like I’m there.” Transparency and that transmission of place or person or experience is part of the magic of photography. I present an image so that the person who looks at it enters that space of the image and has the experience without me pointing it out to them—so that there’s a slow, dawning revelation. I’m not trying to accomplish anything more than that: more than getting out of my own way so the world itself can be presented in its unique moment and have relevance for those who see it.