Joel Meyerowitz pioneered the use of colour in photography at a time when it was looked down on in the art world. His vivid images captured the energy and vibrancy of 1960s New York and the diversity of life on its streets.
Over the next few decades, Meyerowitz travelled across the US and Europe: he took pictures in St Louis, in Boston, Florida, California, Germany, Scotland, Mexico and Paris. He continued to document life in New York and spent nine months at the World Trade Center site after 9/11 photographing rescue workers searching through the rubble.
Meyerowitz now lives in Tuscany. He continues to take pictures – most recently of objects – and recently created an online course for aspiring image-makers with Masters of Photography. He has also just published Where I Find Myself: a fascinating and candid autobiography in which he looks back on his career. Here, Meyerowitz explains why he gave up his job as an art director to take pictures and how he honed his craft…
On childhood aspirations When I was growing up, I was just a kid in the poor part of the Bronx in New York. I don’t think anybody had any great aspirations. I wanted to be a baseball player or an artist. I used to draw a lot. I did a lot of comic strip story cartoon drawings, things like that, because that was a very popular means of communication back in the 1940s.
I never thought I would be a photographer. It meant nothing to me. Photography was something that adults did for vacations or birthday parties. The camera was used to memorialise a certain kind of event. It didn’t communicate to a kid like me growing up in a poor family who couldn’t even afford a camera. So I was surprised when photography made itself known to me.
On becoming an art director I had gone to art school and studied painting, art history and medical drawing of all things. When I came back to New York, I needed to get a job, and I got a job in the art department at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine where I was doing medical drawings. But it was kind of boring and I decided I would move downtown and get out of the Bronx and I got a job at an advertising agency. I did graphic design in college – you had to study graphic design as well as everything else, but not photography, I never studied photography. So I got a job doing paste-ups and mechanicals and lettering and things like that and then I moved to another agency.
I enjoyed graphic design … but I was also going to graduate school to get a Master’s degree in art history. At night, if I had the energy, or on the weekends, I did painting … I didn’t see [working in advertising] as my whole life but I didn’t know what was going to come next. At 24, it’s hard to really know … at that age, you’re searching, you’re doing things that are interesting and you’re sort of building yourself at that moment. I was just expressing and expanding and looking at art.
On falling in love with photography while working as an art director at an ad agency I had designed a book and my boss [Harry Gordon] hired Robert Frank to shoot the photographs for the book. [Frank had published his seminal photobook The Americans four years earlier in 1958, was asked to photograph two young girls doing after-school activities for the booklet Meyerowitz had designed.]
I didn’t even know that Robert Frank was a serious photographer. He was just a guy with a camera. But it was one of those life-changing moments where right in front of me, what I saw taking place gave me a leap of imagination.
I saw the fact that this guy was making photographs while he was moving and while the subject in front of him was moving. Everything was fluid and in motion and the click [of the camera] kept on intercepting the physicality of the movement with a kind of brilliant precision.
Because I was a very physical person – I played baseball and I swam and I danced – that kind of physicality struck me as something I wanted to engage in, without knowing anything about art or about the commerce of photography either, just that this machine in the hand seemed to be a license to go out into the world and look at these disappearing fragments of moments.
On quitting his job to take pictures the same day I left the location site and I went out on the street and I was going to go to the subway and go uptown to my office. It was a beautiful day … and it was just nice enough in New York that I decided to walk back because everything on the street looked interesting to me. What was normal life before, and went by without [me] paying any attention – from that moment on, everything seemed to have a possible reading.
By the time I got to the office, I knew I was finished. I went to my boss and he said ‘hey, how was the shoot?’ and I said, ‘Oh Harry, it was great, but I’m quitting’. And he just looked at me. He was a very cool guy – he was an artist himself and he had a little Stogie, a little cigar, and I saw the smoke going up past his eye and he looked at me with this look like ‘what’s going on?’
I told him about the guy moving and intercepting time and everything and I said, ‘I gotta go make photographs’ and he said to me, ‘do you have a camera?’, and I said ‘no, I don’t’. He said, ‘schmuck, how are you going to make photographs?’, so I said, ‘I guess I’ll have to get a camera’, and he opened his drawer and said ‘take mine. Use mine for as long as you need until you have some money to buy your own’.
On learning to photograph life on the streets with Tony Ray Jones The very first thing I did [as a photographer] was put colour film in the camera because it never occurred to me to use black-and-white. I knew with colour film that I could get it back either the same day or the next day and I was so anxious to see the pictures that I thought colour film was the only way to go.
I went out on the streets just looking to see what [was] interesting to me … I didn’t have an idea, and I made the kind of photographs that young photographers make: doorways on the street, bums sleeping in doorways, dead pigeons, shop windows with dusty old mannequins in it and signage – things that were evident right in front of me and that looked like a picture. There was no sense of the more invisible subjects that later on came to me.
When I went to process my first rolls of film … I went to pick them up, and I was looking at everything on a light box and next to me was another light box and another young guy just like me, with long hair and a beard, and he’s looking at his slides too. At some point, he looks at mine and I look at his and we begin to talk, and he’s a young graphic designer just like me, but he was working for Columbia Records. His name was Tony Ray Jones.
The two of us became friends – two young guys, we were a few years apart – and we started hanging out together and going out on the street and shooting every day. We’d go up to my apartment, where I had borrowed a slide projector from my boss, and Tony and I would look at our slides together and both of us tried to learn how to talk about photographs because there wasn’t a culture of photography in 1962. There wasn’t a critical culture.
We were just like “you should have been faster, you should have been closer, you should have had a better exposure, you should have taken a risk. If you had thought about being there a moment before, or if you had stayed in that picture another beat or two, you might have seen what happened in that” … so we were talking to each other and sort of giving each other our feedback.
We started going to the parades in New York. In the spring and the summer time, there’s a parade almost every weekend in New York City, and the parades offered us a kind of camouflage in that you could mix into the crowds and nobody really pays attention to you. It allowed us to be bolder and continue to push each other.
[Over the course of the following year], our subjects developed and I think our feeling for New York City life and the fragmentary moment – in other words, not something that had already stopped and was fixed, but something that was continuing and you intercepted it as it happened in front of you. We were learning how to be more in the moment.
Overcoming shyness Tony and I went to the parades precisely because we were shy. We were two young guys in our twenties and you know, how do you go up to a stranger and make their photograph? How close can you get? Can you get within dancing distance or within speaking distance? How do you operate on the streets? So we used the parades as a way of overcoming our shyness, learning how to be bold.
On learning his craft through doing rather than studying Back then, photography was in the basement. It wasn’t considered really a serious art form. Nobody bought it, there were no galleries – there was one gallery in New York City, and the prices for photographs by Ansel Adams were $25. You couldnt expect to live on photography, except if you were a magazine photographer or an advertising photographer, [and] it wasn’t an art form that was taken seriously. So I learned on the streets. I learned by doing. I taught myself how to print.
There are so many options today. Frankly I don’t think that all these schools are necessary. I think a lot of people go to these schools and they come out like a product of the school … they all have the imprint of the head teacher on their work and all the work tends to look a little bit the same to me. I think, ‘you wanna learn photography? Go out in the world’. The school is out there. All you have to do is be smart enough to ask the right questions of yourself and you’ll learn photography.
On reviewing your work and finding your voice I think every young photographer needs to have the confidence and belief that going out again and again on to the streets [and taking pictures] is going to produce enough work that you can grow from.
[In those days], you would come back with 36 pictures … out of those, maybe 10 or 12 are worth taking a second look at and out of those, maybe only a third of those are interesting enough to hold on to another day.
We were constantly evaluating and building a base of photographs that we could look at in a slide projector…. If you went out every day for a month, at the end of the month you’d have 100 pictures. Then you would cut those down and maybe you’d [be left with] only 10 or 12 of those. But then, over the course of a year, you might have another 60 or 70 pictures that you have squeezed until you have the most intense little diamonds or jewels of all of the work. That’s the way you learn and that’s how you establish your identity, because the pictures reflect back on you who you are.
When I looked at Tony’s pictures and he looked at mine, [the work] was totally separate, even though we worked together all the time. We maintained a kind of identity definition, which is the mark of what an artist really is looking for. To see who the hell you are. Otherwise, you’re just … [making] flower pictures and [photographs of] puppies and pussycats and sunsets – just the regular crap that most people make all the time. You have to get past the crap into something that’s tough enough and personal enough that you can say ‘Yeah, that’s me, that’s a reflection of me, that’s my point of view. That’s my subject matter. Only I would make that kind of photograph.’ That’s what it was all about, really.
On deciding to shoot in colour Making the decision about colour was really a very innocent thing. Coming to photography without any background at all, the world outside, nature, is in colour…. Black-and-white didn’t seem right to me. Everything was grey but the world isn’t grey. Grey seemed so sad to me – dreary, in a way.
Later on, I understood that if I wanted to have prints, the only way I was going to get prints was black and white, because colour was impossible to print. It was very expensive, it took a long time and I didn’t have the money – I could barely afford the film … but I always felt there was a real argument to be made for colour.
By the end of 1963, I owned two cameras and I used to go out with a camera with Kodachrome [colour film] in it and the other camera with Tri-X [black-and-white film] … and I started making two pictures at the same time because I wanted to make an argument for colour.
When I would talk colour [with black-and-white photographers], they were like, ‘You don’t want colour. It’s amateur shit. It belongs in the magazines. It’s fashion’. They were always brushing it aside and I was thinking, ‘are you crazy?’
Colours mean things to us. We choose certain colours. How much time do you spend finding the right shade of lipstick for yourself? Too red, too pale, too shiny, too silvery, until you find the right one for you because you know that it makes your particular personality feel more resolved or more expressive or you feel sexier or more beautiful or whatever. You choose that colour. You want to make an impression with it. And I think we do that with the clothes we put on, the colours we paint the walls, everything. So I just assumed that’s what I was meant to do, was to photograph in colour.
On defining his work I don’t think in those days we put a sort of bracket around the work. We didn’t think it was documentary, because we weren’t telling a story and we didn’t have a job to tell that story.
We didn’t call ourselves artists because in those days, an artist was someone who painted or drew or sculpted or did something other. We were photographers and we were photographing life around us, but in an open ended way that only came together when you collected the variety of pictures you made to kind of express who you were, rather than express a storyline.
It was quite vague. Nobody really had a way of locating that in the art world – in a way, I think we all felt that we were standing somewhat apart from the art world because they weren’t very accepting of photography. All of my friends who were painters kind of poo-pooed it. They said ‘what are you wasting your time for with a camera? With a machine? What do you want to make a machine image for?’
I think photography was really at its first great renewal in the 60s, because more interesting people were coming into photography – just like today. So many young people with a smartphone can make videos, they start to think of themselves as filmmakers – you can shoot Hollywood films [on a phone] – so you’re breaking the rules and opening up a new platform. Speaking in today’s language, photography in the 60s was a new platform for expressing the way everyday life looked. And you didn’t have to lock it in as documentary or magazine work … it was just photography. And you were aspiring to find your own voice.
On photographing the World Trade Center site after 9/11 I’m a New Yorker. I was born there. And my city was attacked. And I felt this incredible need to help in some way, to be of service. But there was nothing to do. All the jobs were taken by construction workers and police and firemen and city contractors and the like and so the public was basically locked out.
One day, about five days after the attack, I worked my way down to the outside perimeter of Ground Zero, which they had already blocked off … and I was just standing there with a crowd of people on the corner, and I raised my camera, because I always carry my camera – I was just looking through it, I wasn’t even going to take a picture – and some cop whacked me on the shoulder and said, ‘no photographs buddy. This is a crime scene’.
I had one of those epiphanies – you know, where the lightbulb goes off over your head? And I said, “no photography allowed? That’s crazy. You can’t do that…. We need a history” … and so I immediately got the sense that this is what I would do. I would find my way inside … and I would [make] a document of everything going on inside Ground Zero. So in that sense I became a historical photographer.
I originally wanted five other photographers and a video guy, plus an aural historian to take the stories from all the people in there, and I figured we would work for whatever length of time we were there but the city wouldn’t hear of it and I couldn’t get any kind of permission for myself or for seven other people … so I worked with a friend who was the Parks Commissioner of New York and he got me a badge and I snuck in and I started to work form the very first day I could go in, which was at that point eight or nine days after the event. I stayed for nine months until I became a regular there, someone everybody knew.
On feeling a responsibility to document crises or moments in history I feel like that work [at the World Trade Center] changed me in a very significant way. Ever since then, every year or so, I find a project that has some kind of public or social benefit that I try to work on. I made a film about Alzheimers because my father had Alzheimers and I wanted to share this experience with the millions of people around the world who have someone with this problem.
Artists make work for themselves. It’s a very self-involved pursuit. You’re searching for another way of expressing yourself. [But] there are times when that expression plus a current need or condition of the moment allows the artist to make a bridge between what’s going on in the moment and their own sense of self. And I think that, at a certain point in your life, it’s certainly worthwhile to [do] that.
I see a lot of younger photographers – people who I know and respect – have started doing those things too. After [Hurricane] Katrina, Richard Misrach went down the Mississippi to see the way the Mississippi was being polluted by petrochemicals and Ed Burtinsky is doing things about water and water issues around the world. I think it’s important for photographers to take on some of these global issues if they can.
On the changing world of street photography It used to be that people on the street were looking around, they were curious and they interacted visually with other people. There was a kind of social or society-like feeling [of] we’re all in this together and people were kind of innocent. They never thought that they were that interesting that anybody would want to photograph them so there was a kind of sweetness and openness to the street.
Now, people are really self-involved all the time. We’re all guilty of this – me too – you walk along and your phone comes out and you’re talking to somebody while you’re walking or you’re texting, so you’re not quite on the street, because a part of your mind is already somewhere else.
There’s also, I think, a greater degree of fear on the street. ‘Why is that person taking my picture? What are they going to do with it? Are they going to put it on the web? Don’t take a picture of my kid’.… It’s weird. A lot of weird shit is going on out there, and I think it’s broken something of the social fabric of life on city streets.
Street photography looks different now because everyone has a device in their hand and signage has penetrated the city streets…. You’re always facing advertising and people with cellphones.
Something is lost. It doesn’t mean it’s bad. There are still plenty of photographers out there trying to make pictures about their time right now, and some of them are doing very well and [making] very interesting work given the new conditions … but things are different. The tempo is different. My time is probably up in terms of photographing that way. To be honest, I’m less interested in the way it looks because I had it when it was so great. This feels like it’s a reduced version of it for me. Somebody else won’t feel that way. They’ll find their own craziness and that’s what I love about photography: every generation has to invent their time through the camera in their way.
On leaving New York for the Italian countryside [It] has been very good for me, in terms of my work. There has been some changes in my work and being in Europe is a real treat, because I’ve always had a very good acceptance and response in Europe and now I seem to have shows all over the place. Berlin, London … Valencia … things are happening and books are being published.
It’s a very interesting time in my life right now. I never expected it to happen, because as you age, you think you’re likely to fall off the map in some way or to have other, new interests, late in life interests, but I’m still involved in photography and I like it a lot. I’m finding new things to consider and that’s the important thing.
I think it’s important at this point in time to still ask questions about photography, like what else in photography is there to consider? In the book [Where I Find Myself], I try to show how throughout my time in photography questions have come up that were really surprising to me – and it’s those questions that make photography interesting.
On writing a retrospective I’m at the age where a retrospective is really important. I wanted a format that felt close to how I feel about photography, because I feel that photography has given me my life. I’ve discovered and learned everything I know about myself and the world through the camera – I found myself – so I thought, ‘that’s a good title for the the book, Where I Find Myself, because it’s a double entendre’. I find myself in Tuscany, I photograph Tuscany. I’m in New York, I photograph New York, but I also have found myself at the same time.
I feel it’s important to write about these discoveries in a way that is demystifying photography. A lot of people write about photography and it’s a kind of gobbledigook, it is technical bullshit that is so dry and really boring. I start to read it and I think, ‘they’re all speaking art jargon’. I like to talk and I just wanted to see if I could write like I speak: in very personal, emotional ways about the richness of the medium.
There does come a time in your life when you think, ‘I finally have something to say besides the pictures I make. And I want to put it on paper while my mind if still fresh. So it was like my gift to give at this point.
Where I Find Myself is published by Laurence King and costs £45. You can see more of Meyerowitz’s work at joelmeyerowitz.com.