Attention Joel Meyerowitz


Photographs ©Joel Meyerowitz

I’ve been planning this post for about week and the core of it was about how I desperately want to see more of Meyerowitz’s early street work. Then today, The Guardian ran a selection from his show at Format which featured a few photographs I’d never seen before. I was excited and a bit disturbed by the irony but knew it wouldn’t deter me from continuing with this post because I’m determined to uncover his stash of early street work.

When I first started shooting street, I was directed to the normal big names, HCB, Winogrand, Frank, Friedlander, Doisneau, Levitt, etc. Each were big influences but when I was later directed to Meyerowitz’s work something resonated with me strongly.  I only saw a few images at first, probably in Bystander but then a selection of his work was added to iN-PUBLIC and I was hooked.  The photograph below literally changed how I thought about street photography.

I couldn’t figure it out at first but the longer it held my gaze the more I was transfixed by the pieces of the puzzle.  The first piece my eye fixated on is the man in the center looking dead at you while holding the woman’s arm while she’s looking down the alley. It’s the type of moment that probably didn’t amount to much in real time but when frozen by the camera it reveals a tension and ambiguity that transforms it into something interesting.

But that’s not it. When you scan the image from left to right, the man on the left edge adds another element. Falling out of the frame, his slight glance at the man and woman adds another dynamic to the composition. As you continue you notice the people walking away down the alley which connects to the woman looking away. Are she and the man following them?  Then you get to the red car which might be distracting except the color works perfectly with the yellows, oranges and blues of the women and man on the far left.  As you gaze up, the city landscape, shapes and soft light compliment the human scene below.  And then, on the far right you have the man in the shadow, a mystery that holds the frame together.

Ok, so that’s the long version, but the short version is that it feels exactly like one of those bustling moments where nothing is really happening until the camera captures that exact moment.  That’s probably the most important lesson that I picked up from this frame. On the street, the photographer can create small dramas and mysteries out of the most mundane of movements and gestures.  The part of the frame I can never get over is the man’s hand holding the women as she turns away. It’s that subtle turn, her hair swinging, that creates such a dynamic image. In the next second they’re walking down the alley arm in arm off to their car or dinner reservation.

Meyerowitz does this time and again in his street work. He forces you to put the pieces of the puzzle together and understands how the movement of the people, the color and shapes all work in harmony to complete the frame.  The photograph is about the entire frame and within it there maybe a human drama, or several small gestures that add up to create something new and revealing.

Something I appreciate about his frames is how he provides just enough detail of the physical structures in the background to add detail and depth to the photograph. Winogrand’s camera would typical  be drawn like a magnet to the human element, whereas Meyerowitz would always allow some room for it to breath within the frame. Those small details and the typically brilliant use of color add a level of complexity to the frame that I find interesting and engaging.

But he’s not always so subtle. There are times where a character or situation are so unique or strange that he simply puts the frame where it needs to be in order to show you.  He knows when not to complicate the frame, and I think this is a true sign of a master street photographer.

Same gold wall?

This is incredibly cliche to say but when I look at Meyerowitz’s street work I immediately want to go out and shoot. Whenever I’m bored with street, I always check out his gallery on iN-PUBLIC. But then I get disappointed because it’s over too early.  I say to myself, “I know there’s more! And he’s keeping it from me! Why Joel? Why?”

You can see plenty of Winogrand’s street work in his books but there’s no book that contains only Meyerowitz’s street work, at least not to my knowledge.  And on the web there’s not much beyond what you can find on iN-PUBLIC.

I imagine what’s sitting in those archives and I want to see more. I understand the value of editing and only showing the best work, but on the other hand, with street photography, especially when created by a master, I think you can show more these days without having an negative impact on your reputation.

So Joel, if you’re reading this please create a Tumblr or a blog dedicated to your street work. Within a week I guarantee you’ll have more traffic than you could ever imagine, enough to demonstrate that you could publish a book of this work and sell enough copies to make it worth the trouble.

And if you want someone to go through those archives and help figure out what should go on the blog, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

Now it’s time to go back and take a stroll through that iN-PUBLIC gallery one more time.