Joel Meyerowitz

American Photographer and Filmmaker

Born: March 6, 1938
The Bronx, New York
We think of photography as pictures. And it is. But I think of photography as ideas. And do the pictures sustain your ideas or are they just good pictures? I want to have an experience in the world that is a deepening experience that makes me feel alive and awake and conscious.

Summary of Joel Meyerowitz

Though he belongs to the very top tier of modern American photographers, it could be said that Joel Meyerowitz came to be known initially almost by chance. Meyerowitz took to the streets of New York (with a borrowed camera) unaware that the preference amongst the new generation of art photographers was for black and white images. Though he was not averse to using monochrome (at the start of his career at least) he began by using color film blissfully unaware of this somewhat stuffy preconception. Indeed, though following in the "happenchance" style of Robert Frank, Henri Cartier-Bresson and the like, Meyerowitz had, albeit unwittingly perhaps, initiated a transformation in attitudes towards color street photography. Moving into the 1970s he diversified by taking up large format photography. His best-selling (with over some 100,000 copies sold) 1978 book Cape Light became in fact a benchmark text for the artistic possibilities of large plate color photography.

As a native of New York, Meyerowitz had been especially affected by the 9/11 attacks, and was the only photographer granted unrestricted access to Ground Zero. He embarked on a Ground Zero archival project, using a combination of large plated and 35mm formats, for The Museum of the City of New York. The project produced over 5,000 photographs (400 of which appeared in Aftermath: The World Trade Centre Archive in 2006). Latterly, Meyerowitz has spent more time in his second home in Tuscany where he has undertaken a still lifes series focusing on the "lives" of objects from the studios of Paul Cézanne and Giorgio Morandi.


Progression of Art


New Year's Eve, NYC (Kiss Me Stupid), New York City

This iconic photograph is a classic of Meyerowitz's early New York street photography. At this point in his career he had only been photographing for three years, and was eager to find comedy and melodrama around every corner of New York's streets. The photograph was shot with in 35mm black and white film and shows a prominent cinema banner, advertising the romantic comedy movie "Kiss Me, Stupid", starring Dean Martin and Kim Novak. Directly underneath the banner, in the centre of the composition, a couple share an intimate New Year's Eve kiss, framed by passing crowds on either side. The cheerful crowds are blurred, as they move past, set on their own paths for the evening celebrations. By comparison, the central couple seem frozen in time, oblivious of the world around them.

The sweet comedy of the Kiss Me Stupid sign is almost suggestive of some kind of benevolent cinema employee, encouraging romance on this New York evening. The quotation marks call into memory perhaps the captions of a silent movie, as if subtitling the couple's dialogue. Meyerowitz captures a spontaneous moment of magic and synchronicity that as passing strangers we may not have looked twice at had the photographer not assumed an invisible presence behind the lens.

Gelatin silver print - Five Colleges Collection Database


New York City

This photograph was one of Meyerowitz very earliest, and an example of his natural predilection for color film before he made a self-conscious decision to use it. He remembers "I hadn't even been [shooting] a year and was learning how to become invisible on the street and get closer to people. This was the Puerto Rican Day Parade, and this young man was a perfect model, with a big flashy pompadour and probably a leather jacket in his car . . . But there was a sweetness to him, too. He was in the machine that he'd polished to a T. It was his vehicle, and his work of art."

This style of photograph calls into mind Meyerowitz deep admiration for Robert Frank. In the mode of Frank, Meyerowitz captures the melting pot of mid-century American life, creating a brand of Americana as observed from the position of an onlooker. The smooth, shining blue automobile cuts a diagonal line across the frame, a symbol of the American dream. Meanwhile, an American flag flutters in the breeze which is perhaps a specific nod to Frank for whom the American flag was something of a motif in The Americans. Yet, other elements of the photograph challenge ask us to consider what it meant to "be" American. The combative stare of the young man in the middle, in 1950s style greaser clothes, is counter to 1960s mainstream American culture while his "otherness" - the car owner is of Puerto Rican appearance - hints at a conflicted heritage; much like American-Jews like Meyerowitz and Swiss-Americans like Frank.

Archival pigment print - Huxley Parlour Gallery, London


New York City

This photograph marks a crucial point in Meyerowitz career. In this period during the mid-1970s, Meyerowitz switched from a small handheld camera to a large format 8 x 10 Deardorff. The loss of mobility is however compensated for by the much larger, high quality color prints. Though the switch to the Deardorff took away some spontaneity, it adheres to the same "snapshot" principle of Meyerowitz's street photography: that of capturing a moving city in a split moment in time and place. Speaking of the location on the intersection of 59th street and Madison Avenue, Meyerowitz suggested that he had "picked a hard, sunny corner, with something in the frame that appealed to [him];" in this case specifically, a "gaudy and horrible" office building that was "exactly of its era."

In terms of its composition, we see that the picture frame is divided into geometric shapes of light and shadow. Against this architectural order, passing individuals are purposeful, concentrated and introspective, striding across the composition in a mix of drab greys and tans and gaudy pink or blue. Yet collisions seem somehow inevitable given that each figure is in a world of their own. The color film meanwhile is integral to creating a mood and impression of a particular time and place. As Meyerowitz himself put it in this discerning quote: "When I first showed these sorts of image to my friends Garry Winogrand and Tod Papageorge they thought that I had lost my mind, or lost my eye. And yet, when I look back on this picture - at the newsagent, or the man striding around the corner, or the gigantic woman - I feel a kind of giddy delight that I was there. This was a crucial turning point, which moved me further along my own path. Anyone who looked at this in 2050 would be able to say: 'So that's what it was like to be in New York 75 years ago."

Archival pigment print - Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York


Red Interior, Provincetown

For his Cape Light "vacation" series, Meyerowitz's produced a series of tranquil, reflective (some might even say nostalgic) color photographs taken in and around Cape Cod, Massachusetts in the "joyous and feverish" summers of 1976 and 1977. Published in 1978, Cape Light broke new ground for color photography and helped elevate color photography to the status of "art". On a denotative level, the images show an untroubled, idyllic seaside location tinged with a mood of Americana. Meyerowitz was not trying to make any kind of social statement with the collection, however, but was rather concerned with aesthetics and affects, realized here in the relationship between object, light, and time.

Shot with a large format 8x10 Deardoff camera, his images used the natural and available light to illuminate landscapes, sky, water, and architecture and to seek out new subtleties within the depths of his frame. In a 2014 interview with Alessia Glaviano for Italian Vogue, Meyerowitz explained how with the Cape Light series he had wanted to "remove background noise and sources of distraction" from his images; he was, in his own words, trying to "visualize the complexity of his soul and emotions." Indeed, Meyerowitz suggested to Glaviano that for a photograph to be considered art, it must have a "transformation 'coefficient'" which he explained as the "variance between reality and the vision of reality that artistry brings with it [...] Without transformation," Meyerowitz continued, "photography would be a mere paper sheet." It is this ability to transform an image into something "more" - to exploit to the full the image's range of artistic possibilities - that gives color its advantage over monochrome.

Here for instance the "Red Interior" of the title refers to the lit interior of a car whose doors have been left open. The luminous red is offset against the deep blue eventide sky and the white masonry of the holiday homes. It is through these juxtapositions of color that Meyerowitz achieves a hyperreal quality. As he stated, "color suggests that light itself is a subject" and it is this, helped by the "quiet" stillness of the postcard location, that elevates the image to art and ultimately brought Meyerowitz his just accolades.


The North Wall

After the 9/11 attacks on New York, Meyerowitz spent nine months at the Ground Zero site photographing its aftermath for what would become a 5,000 piece archive. The Guardian writer Peter Conrad describes some of Meyerowitz's most chaotic and ravaged scenes as showing an "Armageddon" of biblical proportions; "a sulphurous underworld in which the sky was a remote, mocking memory." Indeed, in this shot, against the black skeleton of the building's burnt out wall, we are given an almost unforgivable dreamy pink and blue sky that dominates the upper two thirds of the composition.

Meyerowitz described his composition in terms of what he called an "awful beauty". And one can easily see what he meant by this. On one level the image reflects the foibles of human beings which are here merely illuminated when set against the majestic beauty of nature. Yet, this photograph might also be seen in a more hopeful sense. Meyerowitz felt that the catastrophe had brought out the very best in human nature in the rescue and rebuild schemes that followed. In other ways, then, this photograph is demonstrative of the human ability for perseverance and regeneration under the most appalling set of circumstances. Even in this most ugly of events, Meyerowitz saw that human resolution, and hope for the future, was alive and well in the collective response of his fellow New Yorkers.

U.S. State Department and the Museum of the City of New York


Bronx Ricer, New York Botanical Gardens, Autumn

"Wherever I went it was the wild and unmanaged parts of the parks that called to me" said Meyerowitz of his New York Parks project. As a companion to his Ground Zero archive, Meyerowitz produced a series called Legacy - The Preservation of Wilderness in New York City Parks. Meyerowitz decided to document the natural and beautiful chaos of the wild, untamed corners of New York's green spaces. With 9/11, Kat Kiernan notes, "Meyerowitz took on the responsibility of photographing the manmade devastation and documenting the rapidly changing landscape as the city began to rebuild. Applying this same technique in Legacy, Meyerowitz once again assumes this responsibility. By preserving the New York City parklands, we allow for change - growth and overgrowth, natural rather than manmade destruction."

Nostalgic, perhaps, but touchingly simple, this series provided the antidote to Meyerowitz's deeply affecting work at Ground Zero. The collection follows the common thread which connects all of Meyerowitz work: freezing fleetingly beautiful moments in unexpected places. The fiery oranges and golds of the autumn leaves and the lush green grasses reflected against the water would hardly be expected to be located in one of the busiest high-rise cities in America. Yet Meyerowitz invites the viewer to take a moment for reflection in this most secluded location, enveloped by the arching tree branches. Meyerowitz is telling us that even where civilization has made its most profound impact nature still finds its way into our lives if we are willing to look hard enough.

Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York - Archival pigment print


Morandi's Objects

During the last decade, Meyerowitz has been largely concentrating on still life work. With his more permanent move to rural Tuscany, the bustle of urban street photography has given way to more rural surroundings and a culture steeped in European art history. In this series Meyerowitz wanted to document objects owned by, or inspired by, Morandi and Cezanne.

In many ways, it may seem an unlikely change of subject matter for Meyerowitz. Yet, the principle behind his worldview remains unchanged: a celebration of color and light in the everyday. When Meyerowitz received the invitation to visit Morandi's studio in Bologna and to document over 250 of his objects, he seized the opportunity. The photographer imagined that "[Morandi] would sit in the studio in his Bologna home for days on end, living with his mother and these objects." The idea that the artist lives with, rather than amongst, the objects imbues them with an animistic character and beauty in and of themselves. Indeed, Meyerowitz said that he "could commune with these humble forms precisely because their personae were available to [Morandi]." It was a humble artistic existence that Meyerowitz found for himself in the quiet retreats of rural Tuscany.

Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York - Archival pigment print

Biography of Joel Meyerowitz

Childhood and Education

Joel Meyerowitz was born in the Bronx, New York City in 1938, to working class Jewish immigrant parents from Hungary and Russia. Even in his formative years, Meyerowitz was aware of his heritage and the idea that he could see his homeland from the position of an outsider. As he recalled later: "My sensitivities and sympathies, my cultural and moral stance, were informed through a kind of Jewish passport - a way of looking at the world and seeing characteristics, qualities, sentiments and emotions touched by a Jewish sympathy."

Meyerowitz describes a chaotic but warm childhood. He partook in the usual childhood games, acting out Cowboys and Indians by the Bronx River, playing baseball and building model aeroplanes. But he was also born with the instincts of a flâneur and he passed time by wandering the streets of the Bronx. He claimed that he inherited the skill for quiet observation from his father who was a Charlie Chaplin impersonator: "it seemed to me as a kid that his instinct for pointing out things to observe, the comedy of the streets, was flawless", he recalled, "I think that I got my 'chops' from my father's nudging me to say, "Watch, watch what happens here!" Indeed, even in his early life he was developing a keen eye for seeking out the absurd in the detail of everyday American street-life.

Education and Early Work

In 1959, Meyerowitz graduated with a degree in painting and art history from Ohio State University. He moved back to New York where he found work at an advertising agency as an art director. One day in 1962, word reached Meyerowitz that an exciting young photographer was working on a location shoot for the clothing brochure he was working on. The photographer was none other than Robert Frank.

The 24-year-old Meyerowitz travelled across Manhattan to observe the shoot. He became immediately transfixed on Frank's "effortless" and "balletic" movement between the models and he felt a special kind of frisson at the sound of the "click" of Frank's shutter: "For a moment [life] kind of froze in a gasp-like quality" he recalled. The idea that photography could accommodate (and capture) such movement proved to be a moment of epiphany and on his walk back to his office Meyerowitz remembered "reading the text of the street in a way that [he] never had before." Resigning his post with immediate effect, he told his boss, Harry Gordon, that he too wanted to be a photographer. Gordon retorted "You have a camera? Well, schmuck, how are you going to make photographs?" Gordon handed Meyerowitz a Pentax Camera saying "use mine until you can afford one." And with that act of kindness, Meyerowitz took his first steps to becoming a serious Street photographer. A few months later, Meyerowitz was given a copy of Frank's seminal photobook, The Americans, which merely redoubled his commitment to a career in photography. Meyerowitz says to this day that "Robert Frank is the reason I make photographs."

Mature Period

Despite his early enthusiasm, Meyerowitz was as an inhibited photographer. He soon managed to overcome his shyness however when on one of his first projects photographing bystanders at a street parade he realized then that "Nobody thinks there's anything odd about a photographer at a parade." This realization gave him a feeling that a photographer could become invisible. During this early New York period Meyerowitz became close friends with the British photographer Tony Ray-Jones and fellow American Gary Garry Winogrand. While Ray-Jones returned to Britain, Meyerowitz "walked and worked" Fifth Avenue with Winograd on a daily basis for some five years. Indeed, Meyerowitz claimed Fifth Avenue as "my boulevard," declaring that "No street in the world [...] has for me the kind of sexy, improvisatory collisions between elegance and lowness. You can see bike messengers and models, billionaires and hustlers, and it's all out there every day."

Between the mid-to-late 1960s and the early 1970s, Meyerowitz travelled around America, making important visits to Cape Cod and Florida, and across Europe with his first wife, the painter Vivian Bower (they had married in 1963). As he aged as a photographer Meyerowitz became more introspective and looked to different subject matter for inspiration. He remarked that his restless search for new ideas was a combination of professional and self-examination, candidly asking himself: "How interesting is this medium? And how interesting can I make it for me? And, by the way, who the fuck am I?" Meyerowitz began to concentrate less on the "fleeting moment", where the subject was centralised and the background somewhat secondary, and instead constructing images that was more composed in terms of their depth of field. Turning away from the Cartier-Bresson "decisive moment" technique, Meyerowitz began to take "field photographs". These were more carefully planned, more sharply focused in depth, and required a greater distance between lens and subject-matter.

But perhaps the most important change in his new approach was Meyerowitz' full allegiance to color photography which he committed to from 1972. From saturated street photographs, to luminous landscapes, Meyerowitz confronted the widespread opinion that color was "cheap and vulgar" and simply not suitable for "serious" photography. Meyerowitz expressed a different worldview altogether: "The world was in color. It was just so obvious to me. I had no idea people were snobbish about color. To me, black and white just seemed back there, historical."

In his pursuit of a more studied picture frame, Meyerowitz switched from a 35 mm camera to a large format Deardorff camera. The two types of camera offered very different options. Yet Meyerowitz "tried to bring to the View Camera some of the same instantaneous responses that [he] learned from 35 millimetre" and he was "grateful for the fact that [he had] started on the street." Some of Meyerowitz's most successful photobooks were published in this period, including Cape Light, now considered a seminal work of color photography, in 1978. Throughout the 1980s, Meyerowitz continued in this format and as he grew in prominence he took his place next to other greats of his generation such as Diane Arbus and Lee Friedlander.

Late Period

Having divorced from Vivian Bower in the late 1980s, Meyerowitz was remarried in 1990 to the English novelist Maggie Barrett. This change in his personal circumstances meant that Meyerowitz began to travel across Europe, and Italy especially, with more frequency. In 1998, at the age of 60, Meyerowitz decided to create his first film, Pop, which documented a three-week road trip he made with his 32-year-old son, Sasha, and his 87-year-old father, Hy. The film was an intimate family portrait of three generations of Meyerowitz men.

In 2001, the tragic events of the 9/11 terrorist attacks prompted Meyerowitz to go back home and undertake an extended project. The attacks had had a profound effect on Meyerowitz, and he felt a sense of personal responsibility to document the devastation and reconstruction of Ground Zero. New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani had forbidden the recording of the aftermath of the biggest ever attack on American soil (on the grounds that it was a crime scene), but Meyerowitz used his connections to gain legitimate access to the site. He was in fact the only photographer granted access to the scene, and he began to build an archive of over 5,000 photographs, many documenting the emotional journey endured by builders, firemen, neighbourhood residents, and rescue teams. He said "I got the sense that that's what I could do to help - that I could figure out a way to get in there and take photographs and make an archive that I could give to the City of New York as a gift. And I did. I managed to go into Ground Zero on September 23rd and stay for eight and a half months."

After the Ground Zero project, Meyerowitz spent more of his time in Italy where he took to photographing the Tuscan landscape. It was a time of self-examination for Meyerowitz who came to the realization that he needed to be, in his words, less "self-indulgent" and "more useful more often." It was in this mindset that he travelled back to New York in 2010 where he undertook a series on New York's public parks. His sumptuously colored photographs showed the innocent and peaceful side of his damaged city; a sort of New York companion-piece for his Ground Zero project.

Since 2014 Meyerowitz and his wife Maggie have lived in a restored farmhouse in Tuscany. Meyerowitz had gone back to the basics of photography, focusing on still life pieces inspired by the European Impressionists. He spends his days trawling Tuscan flea markets for interesting objects to document. In 2018, now aged 80, he published Where I Find Myself, a "reverse retrospective" which looks at his journey backwards, from Tuscany to the Bronx. He also began to teach photography online through interactive masterclasses. When reminded recently of his first questions about photography and life ("How interesting is this medium? And how interesting can I make it for me? And, by the way, who the fuck am I?") he claimed he hadn't found out the answers yet, but though "time is running out," he was in fact "getting there."

The Legacy of Joel Meyerowitz

Writing in 2010, Sean O'Hagan identified Meyerowitz, Gary Winogrand, Lee Friedlander "as the key influences on a generation that has rediscovered and is busy reinventing [street photography]." Though Street Photography has a history almost as old photography itself (O'Hagan cites Eugène Atget, Brassaï, André Kertész, Jacques Henri Lartigue, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans and Robert Frank as its principle exponents) in the current climate the term was used to denote an "attitude" that the New York photographers of the 1960s and '70s - namely Meyerowitz, Winogrand and Friedlander - did so much to define.

Seen first and foremost as the Godfather of modern color photography, Meyerowitz performed a key role in elevating color documentary photography to the status of fine art. He was brought his influence to bear specifically on the likes of Martin Parr - Parr credits him (along with William Eggleston and Stephen Shore) for his lurid and saturated use of color - and a young William Eggleston who, in an evening in New York in 1968, came to Meyerowitz apartment "spending hours studying my hundreds of color photographs."

Meyerowitz has won countless awards and accolades during his six-decade career. He is a Guggenheim Fellow (twice over) and the recipient of National Endowments for the Arts (NEA) and National Endowments for the Humanities (NEH) awards. He has been the subject of numerous exhibitions and his work forms part of the permanent collections the world over. On January 18, 2017 Meyerowitz was honored as a "magician using color" and for being able to "both capture and frame the decisive moment" as he took up his place in the Leica Hall of Fame. Perhaps the greatest part of legacy however was his Ground Zero archive. As Meyerowitz himself put it: "The archive is a work of testimony that will enter not just the history of photography, but history itself."

Related Artists

Related Movements & Topics

Cite article
Correct article