Daily Picture Show

Master Photographer Documents NYC's 'Wilderness'

Joel Meyerowitz has ostensibly calmed down. The man once drawn to the chaotic absurdities of city streets has turned his lens to calmer subjects — like landscapes and wilderness. But to understand why that matters, you first have to know a bit about the photographer.

Flag, Provincetown, July 4th, 1983 (Joel Meyerowitz/Courtesy of Edwynn Houk Gallery)

hide captionFlag, Provincetown, July 4th, 1983 (Joel Meyerowitz/Courtesy of Edwynn Houk Gallery)

Yesterday's blog entry featured the pioneers of color who, in the 1960s and '70s, were challenging the black-and-white confines of art photography. One of those photographers was Meyerowitz. He now has photographs in two concurrent exhibitions: Starburst: Color Photography in America 1970-1980, which surveys that time period and Pioneers of Color, which highlights the work of three influential photographers. He also has a new book out, documenting the wilderness of New York City.

After studying painting in school, Meyerowitz became the art director of a small ad agency in New York City. Then, one day in the early 1960s, he saw the legendary Robert Frank photographing on assignment and, he says, was so inspired by Frank's balletic movement that he quit his job on the spot and picked up a camera himself.

Camel Coats, 5th Avenue, New York City, 1975 (Joel Meyerowitz/Courtesy of Edwynn Houk Galle

hide captionCamel Coats, 5th Avenue, New York City, 1975 (Joel Meyerowitz/Courtesy of Edwynn Houk Gallery)

So Meyerowitz joined the photographic zeitgeist of the time, which was teeming with — although not entirely dominated by — street photography and color film. He was one of the first, along with Stephen Shore and William Eggleston, to work exclusively in color, and became a professor of color photography at Cooper Union School of Art in the early '70s.

What set Meyerowitz's street photography apart was not only the structure that characterizes his entire portfolio, but also a sense of humor and levity. He contemplated his early work over the phone:

Who was I when I was 24, 26, 28? What was I learning? How was I changing? Where did I go? The person that I was then was very funny. So many of the pictures have a certain wacky, surreal humor to them. The world seemed kind of zany crazy to me. They're not ironic. They're about how the culture looked — how Amercica looked during the Vietnam War. I think I saw an absurd streak in American life. And so the pictures — they're not documentary, they're not journalism — they're very personal ...
Paris, Fallen Man, 1967 (Joel Meyerowitz/Courtesy of Edwynn Houk Gallery)

hide captionParis, Fallen Man, 1967 (Joel Meyerowitz/Courtesy of Edwynn Houk Gallery)

Our conversation confirmed something that his photographs suggest: that Meyerowitz is a contemplative person. Over the years, his work has evolved from "wacky" street photography to quiet, composed landscapes. In the 1970s, he began using a large-format camera for his color work, which forced a switch in tone. With a 35mm camera, it's easy to dash and dart through the streets snapping spontaneously. But with a heavy large-format view camera, everything is deliberate.

One of his more recent projects was documenting the destruction and recovery of ground zero after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. And his most recent oeuvre is a book called Legacy: The Preservation of Wilderness in New York City Parks. Commissioned by the city's Department of Parks and Recreation, it surveys New York's wilderness, and was nearly two years in the making. Although the city streets are probably more wild than the parks, Meyerowitz has been on the streets for years, so this assignment provided an opportunity for something unusual.

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Now in his 70s, Meyerowitz is still photographing, and still very active in the photo world. If his images are any reflection of his attitude, then one might say he's calmed down a bit, if not slowed down. His latest works are quiet, contemplative and ordered — and over the phone, he was, too. Listen to his closing remarks here. And turn up your volume. He's soft-spoken.

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