Joel Meyerowitz is one of the true giants of 20th century photography. His career has moved from street photography to impressionistic landscapes to portraits to still life subjects and more. His series of images taken in and around the World Trade Center site in the wake of 9/11 was wrenching, poignant and authentic: a brutally honest collection that captured the horror and sorrow of those terrible times with compassion and respect.

Meyerowitz began as a street photographer in New York the 1960s, and was one of the leaders in the movement that chose color film as the medium for their work, helping to legitimize it as an art form that stood on its own alongside traditional, black-and-white photography. 1Stephen Shore and William Eggleston were Meyerowitz’s peers in this transformation, and are both well worth looking into as well. Eggleston is a bit of an odd duck, as the interesting (and uneven) documentary, William Eggleston in the Real World, displays, but his work is quite distinctive, especially for its time. I first discovered  Meyerowitz in 1980, with the publication of Cape Light, a collection of color photographs taken on Cape Cod in the 1970s, and have been a fan ever since.

Now nearly 80 years old, Meyerowitz remains a vibrant, necessary artist, and the The New York Times Magazine’s photography critic, Teju Cole, has written a timely appreciation of the artist, “Joel Meyerowitz’s Career Is a Minihistory of Photography.” Whether you know Meyerowitz well, or have only a passing acquaintance with his work, it’s a good read.

Here are a few other resources, if Cole’s essay makes you wanting more:

  • Some of Meyerowitz’s work can be found on the Howard Greenberg Gallery website; Meyerowitz’s own site is currently being redesigned, with a “check back soon” message on the home page.
  • Bystander: A History of Street Photography, is an excellent, comprehensive overview, co-written by Meyerowitz and Colin Westerbeck. First published in 1994, it was updated and republished last year to include the first years of this century, and the rise of digital photography as an art form.
  • I’ve seen Meyerowitz speak a few times, and he is a compelling presence in person. Short of seeing him in person, you can find a few YouTube videos that are well worth watching, but my favorite is the short one highlighted at the top of this piece, ‘What you put in the frame determines the photograph.’ That deceptively obvious title disguises a clear delineation of Meyerowitz’s philosophy, where he talks about his understanding that photography for him is as much about what happens outside the frame as what happens inside it.

That video also has one of my favorite quotes of his:

“I wanted the ephemeral connections between unrelated things to vibrate, and if my pictures work, at all, at their best they are suggestive of these tenuous relationships, and that fragility is what is so human about them.”

‘Human’ is a great word to describe the arc of Meyerowitz’s work.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Stephen Shore and William Eggleston were Meyerowitz’s peers in this transformation, and are both well worth looking into as well. Eggleston is a bit of an odd duck, as the interesting (and uneven) documentary, William Eggleston in the Real World, displays, but his work is quite distinctive, especially for its time.