Research notes – Joel Meyerowitz

The following notes come from seeing some of Joel Meyerowitz books and catalogues, in particular, “Cape light” (1) and “The Arch” (2), as well as looking at various websites showing his black and white / colour street photography work (3)(4).

Looking at his street work from the 60s and the 70s, both black and white and colour pictures follow more or less the same formula: Meyerowitz is looking for some element of juxtaposition or incongruity in order to make the image attractive to the viewer. There are various examples of this, such as his picture of a cinema ticket clerk in which the face is obscured by the booth’s speak through grill (“New York City, Times Square 1963” – link) or his photograph of a New York’s 5th Avenue with a leaping stuffed tiger (“Tiger, 5th Avenue, 1975” – link). There is also an element of surrealism in some of his work, with my favourite example of this being “Pool in Southwest, 1971” (link), where Meyerowitz takes advantage of the similarity of the pool lines and the design of a translucent parasol in front of it to create an eerie effect of continuity. This is a picture that probably relies on uniformity of tonality and shapes to convey its optical effect and is not likely to have worked as a colour picture. Meyerowitz images from this era reflect the peculiarities of urban life, with its crowds and singularities. But does it show something else beyond that? Could it be interpreted in any other way than as a collection of vignettes, some more peculiar than others from their point of view, but none standing out or revealing something about the subject or the photographer? I am somewhat unconvinced about the transcendence of this work.

In “Cape light” Meyerowitz starts to move away from the crowds and starts a journey towards a more intimate, personal form of photography. The pictures here also start to have a sense of space, in some cases negative space (such as in “Duno Grass House, Truro Massachusetts” – link), but in many other, a separation between the elements that harmoniously inhabit his canvas, creating very pleasantly composed images (such as in the gas station shot in Provincetown 1976 – link) which in some cases are either mysterious (such as in “Red Interior, Provincetown” – link) and in most other cases melancholic (such as in his swimming pool shot under a stormy, brooding sky, also taken in Provincetown 1976 – link). The pictures with people in this series are a mixture of insider-outsider shots, with some of his beach shots being very similar to those taken in the streets of New York years before, having the effect of being just a slice of life without any particular connotations (such as in “Ballston Beach, Truro” – link), with others being more intimate (such as in “Cocktail Party, Wellfleet” – link, or “Vivian” – link mature content). These images mainly evoke a life which is lived at a different pace from his early city street shots, and this is not only conveyed by the contents of the pictures but also how they are arranged within the frame. The aesthetic values of the image become more prominent in this series, but Meyerowitz remains true to his earlier form and continues to look for incongruous or stand-out elements to draw the viewer into the frame (see for instance the open, seemingly abandoned car in “Red Interior, Provincetown” – link, or the girl walking towards the camera while almost everybody else is chatting away in “Cocktail Party, Wellfleet” – link, or the large red car in front of the beach cabin in “Truro, 1976” – link).

The series of images of Saint Louis’s Gateway Arch in “The Arch” seems initially like a continuation of the “Cape light” approach. Meyerowitz is mesmerised by the transcendence of the arch, at some point in the introduction of the book mentioning that

“There were days when, standing beneath it, I felt I kind of knew the power of the pyramids. It was restorative, contemplative. It was more than a technological marvel or a symbol. It was pure form, the beauty of mathematics, a drawing on the heavens, perfect pitch. I came to be in awe of it.”(5).

The resulting set is an urban exploration of Saint Louis with the Gateway Arch as the backdrop, in some cases almost imperceptible (as in his “brains 25c” shot – link), in others quite prominent (as in his yellow road markings shot – link), but always in a style which is more contemplative, more attuned to “aftermath” photography than his street photographs of the 1960s and early 1970s in New York, and increasingly conscious of its aesthetic values. Most of the images here are almost devoid of any human presence. Meyerowitz perhaps achieved that by taking his images early in the morning or late in the evening, when there would be fewer people on the streets, but may have also done it by deliberately using a long shutter speed (or perhaps the combination of both). After all, most of what we get in the frames are still objects: buildings, roads, parked vehicles, shop windows. Almost nothing is moving here. In the few shots in which people are shown, they are dwarfed by the scale of the arch and other structures depicted (such as this picture of Busch Memorial Stadium – link), immobilized not by the action of the shutter but by their insignificance. Meyerowitz obsession with the arch seem to have taken him as far as possible from the crowded, somehow chaotic world of his early street photography work to one in which space and structure are paramount and the only hint of humanity is in the creation of the space, but not in its inhabitation. Perhaps this is all right in the end. After all, it was a series commissioned by the Saint Louis Art Museum to document the city and this is what we get, a document of the city and its most famous man-made structures. But there are no hints about how St Louisans live or whether they are any different in their life habits from New Yorkers. In focusing too much on the arch, Meyerowitz seems to have compiled a series which is too one-sided and lacks the personal, slightly warmer approach of his “Cape light” and early street work.

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(1) Meyerowitz, J., MacDonald, B. and Ackley, C. (1981). Cape light. Boston, Mass: Museum of Fine Arts [u.a.].

(2) Meyerowitz, J. and Bower, V. (1988). The Arch. Boston: Little, Brown.

(3) Chasing Light. 2017. Joel Meyerowitz | Black & White Work – Chasing Light. [ONLINE] Available at: http://blog.ricecracker.net/2013/04/06/joel-meyerowitz-black-white-work/. [Accessed 16 July 2017]

(4) in-public.com. 2017. Joel Meyerowitz | in-public.com. [ONLINE] Available at: http://in-public.com/masters/joel-meyerowitz/. [Accessed 16 July 2017].

(5) Quoted from the article “Saint Louis and the Arch”, by Joel Meyerowitz, in Meyerowitz, J. and Bower, V., op cit. 

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