Joel Meyerowitz: Icon with a Leica

An award-winning street photographer who has been creating memorable images in the great photojournalistic tradition since 1962, Joel Meyerowitz pioneered the use of color in this slice of life genre, and his classic book on Cape Cod, “Cape Light” was instrumental in changing the prevailing dismissive attitudes toward color photography. An inveterate Leica shooter, he is the author of 17 other books including a volume newly released by Aperture: “Legacy: The Preservation of Wilderness in New York City Parks.”

Within a few days of the 9/11 attacks on The World Trade Center, Meyerowitz began to create an archive of the destruction and recovery at Ground Zero that consists of over 8,000 images of the aftermath of the tragedy. The U.S. State Department subsequently mounted 35 exhibitions drawing from this historic photographic record. Meyerowitz is a two-time Guggenheim Fellow, and recipient of both NEA and NEH awards. His work is in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and many other prestigious institutions. Here in his own impassioned and insightful words, and in his inimitable conversational style, is his remarkable narrative detailing how he became a photographer and how he views the creative process that has made him a legend.

Q:Please excuse the standard elevator pitch, but can you give us a little introduction as to who you are, what type of photography you shoot, what you’re known for, and what camera you use?

A: I’m Joel Meyerowitz and I have been photographing for 50 years. I consider myself a street photographer, which means I like to be out in the everyday chaos of ordinary life and watch for things to show themselves to me; things that make some sense to me particularly and this kind of work can only be done at the level that I think it needs to be done with a Leica. It’s the camera that I used from 1963 to the present, although, I have to say when I started in 1962, I borrowed an old Pentax camera, but within the first six months I realized that it was a limiting my way of seeing and responding. My best friend at the time was Garry Winogrand and Garry only used Leicas, so I borrowed a Leica one afternoon and that was it. I saw how if you want to be a street photographer and you want to be invisible that’s the camera you have to have.

Q: Can you tell us something about your photographic education? Was it formal or informal? How was your training? Was it on the street and in addition did you have any mentors? I am guessing Garry is a mentor, but were there other people that influenced you?

A: Well, I was trained as a painter and I studied art history in graduate school, but I never thought of photography as an art form or something I was interested in doing. However, back in 1962 when I was working as junior art director in a small company in midtown Manhattan, I designed a booklet and my boss hired Robert Frank to shoot pictures for it. I didn’t know who Robert Frank was, but he was a photographer, a commercial photographer. I went down and watched him execute the work for this book and it was amazing. He moved and photographed and it was all so physical, balletic and magical because I thought you had to say hold that pose and freeze that frame. Instead, he just moved with these two young girls that he was photographing and I was so bowled over by it that when I left the shoot everything I saw in the street – “Taxi!”, “hello”, “goodbye”, adjust the baby’s bonnet or bib – seemed to have meaning to it. By the time I got back to my office my boss asked how the shoot went and I said it was fine, but I’m quitting. He said, “It was that bad?” I said, “No, no, it was great, but I am quitting because I want to be a photographer. It was he who loaned me the camera. A few months later, that same guy, same art director, moved to Europe permanently, and he gave me as a parting gift, Robert Frank’s seminal book, “The Americans.” It changed my life. I suddenly understood that there was a poetry, albeit a dark poetry, but there was a poetry to photography and that if you were attuned to things that the world offers you might be able to be a poet in that way. So in a sense, Robert Frank was my inspiration and his work mentored me.  But on the streets, I met Garry Winogrand very early on –big, curly hair, crazy guy out there photographing all of the time. Although we saw each other, we didn’t connect and then one day on the subway going to the Bronx, who is sitting across from me, but Garry! We began to chat and it turned out we were both going to the Bronx to visit our mothers. How about that? We were two good boys.

Afterwards, he invited me back to his house in New York and I looked at thousands of black and white prints and they were just a revelation about the enormity of the photographic world. The things you could see with a camera. So, I switched and I bought a Leica, an M2 that was available. I managed to get a lens that was not a Leica lens, because I could not afford those two things at the same time from Leica, but it started me on my journey. Really, the instrument becomes an extension of who you are as an artist and when you are confident in the thing that you hold in your hand, it becomes the everyday extension.  You just walk around with it and it’s there and it moves with you and it’s never away from me. When I wake in the morning it’s at my bedside, if I travel anywhere it’s at my bedside. It’s never off of my shoulder. Back then, in 1963, I was photographing the parades in Manhattan and it was a way of learning how to be invisible and to build your skill and to get a better sense of how quickly to focus and what f/stop and exposure you should make, because you know it’s not like digital where you can be all over the place and correct it. You had to be right on, especially when shooting color.

One time I was with Tony Ray-Jones who was a great English photographer, at the time we’re two unknown guys, and we see in front of us on the street, a man, bobbing, weaving, and shooting. He is wearing a fedora and a trench coat and at some point some drunk lurches out of the crowd and this guy throws his camera at the guy, and pulls it back and the guy falls back into the crowd. Tony and I looked at each other and said, “That must be Henri Cartier-Bresson. Tony pushes me to go and see this guy and I walk over and ask him, “Are you Henri Cartier-Bresson?” He says, “No, no I am not. Are you the police?” I said, “No, no we are just two photographers and we saw you working and thought you must be mad.” He said, “Yes I am Cartier-Bresson. You meet me here later and I take you for coffee.” He goes back into the crowd and Tony and I both took our cameras like so because we saw Cartier-Bresson do it. This way, if you dropped it, you always had a grip on it. It became my way, ever since I saw him do that and it gives you a sense of confidence sometimes. You know you’re in a difficult situation; you’ve got also a weapon at the end of the string. I am not kidding when I say that, because when you are on the street you have to be prepared for anything, you know. Anyway, you might say that between Frank, Winogrand and Cartier-Bresson, there were people who worked with a Leica who were different kinds of poets who inspired me to continue doing this kind of work.

Q: You’ve always been an advocate of using color film. Can you share a bit about that? Can you also explain your transition to a large format camera?

A: Back in the ‘60s when I started shooting I shot in color. I didn’t know any better. I thought color was what the world was like and why wouldn’t you shoot in color. Besides that, I didn’t know how to print. I had no experience. Photography meant nothing to me except the passion. So I was showing slides all of the time and I realized that slides were somewhat intangible. You blow them up on the wall, people sat back and said, “Oh, that’s nice,” but nobody got up to look at it closely. Really, when you have black and white pictures in your hands, you could flip through them and they were more intimate. So I began to shoot black and white, but I had this feeling that color really had more to say. If photography is about describing things, then color describes more things, so I felt that was it. In the middle ‘60s, around 66, I started carrying two Leicas – black and white and color. Whenever I had the opportunity to make an interesting photograph, if there was enough time in what was happening, I would make a second picture similar to it in black and white or color so that I could then compare them. Currently, I am working on a retrospective and will go to put into the book, a little bounding book called, “The Question of Color” in which I share some of these pairings that I was studying then, because I wanted to be an intelligent advocate for “Why color?” During that period, in the late ‘60s, you could begin to start printing color almost as easily as black and white. So I made myself a color dark room, and I was getting okay stuff, but the 35mm work when I transferred it from Kodachrome slides to an internegative, started to come apart and I wanted the quality and description that color offered, that a real slide offered. I couldn’t afford the dye transfers all of the time, right, so you have to look at economy also when you do things. At some point I tried a larger format camera and I wasn’t happy with the mid-size margin so I went and bought an 8×10 and I took myself away to Provincetown on Cape Cod because Provincetown is a little bit like 8th Street in New York – you have real street life and you have nature. That way I figured I could work with the 8×10 and the Leica and have my old life and my new life at the same time. Anyway, working with color in the large format camera gave me another way of understanding the world and the timing of the world. I kind of brought a street timing to using the large format. I liked that I could go back and forth between the two so I had two instruments, both with real quality and yet one was more physical the other was more static, and it worked for me. I guess, my personality must have had a more meditative side, the slower large format side, as well as the jazzy street side, but I didn’t know that because I only knew the street. Really, it took me about almost 15 years to make the transition from 35mm to 8×10. So that is how I got to 8×10.

Q: An 8×10 is mentally a very different operation. What has your experience with it been and how does it differ from your Leica?

A: It transforms your way of looking at the world. First of all it is upside down, which is a whole other way of relating to things. And a wonderful way too because it sort of takes the content out of the context so now you are looking at it for something about the weights and the feelings. It’s not composition; it’s about how you know the push/pull of it. Whereas with the Leica on the street the immediacy, the sense that something is actually happening and you are in the moment with it so that when you reach out with the camera, you are part of it and it disappears instantly. It’s the only instrument that stops things from disappearing. You can save them in that way. I learned, I think everything I know about being an artist, using a Leica on the streets. It taught me to understand human nature and to predict even the kinds of little things that might be happening. It has engaged my curiosity with the world and the meaning that comes out of the world. It’s really been an instrument of my education and development as an artist. That’s a mighty tool.

-Leica Internet Team

You can see more of Joel’s work on his website, www.joelmeyerowitz.com.