Thursday, October 3, 2013

Eye on the Street: Joel Meyerowitz

Joel Meyerowitz. American, born 1938. St. Louis (long series of outdoor steps, figures on top),1977. Vintage chromogenic contact print. Gift of Nicole Moretti Ungar, class of 1982, and Jon Ungar. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 2011:71-138.

“[These photographs] are about my inner connections. I’m bringing my whole life to bear on that split second… These pictures are signs that you came to consciousness for a brief second in the flow of your life, which is so overloaded with stimuli that it can drive you away from concentration.” - Joel Meyerowitz

In the early 1960s, Joel Meyerowitz suddenly gave up his career as an advertising art director to take photographs on the New York City streets. While at first Meyerowitz shot both black and white and color film, in 1972 he made the unconventional decision to devote himself exclusively to color photography. Recognizing its unique capability to convey the experience of perceived light, Meyerowitz would become a persistent advocate for and master of color photography, which was most often associated with advertising until the 1970s.

This bold new direction led Meyerowitz to spend the summers of 1976 and 1977 in Provincetown, MA, where he created his first innovative color series, Cape Light. Working in a slow-paced environment allowed Meyerowitz to retire his hand-held 35mm camera in favor of a large-format camera and tripod which is more stable and suitable for shooting with sensitive color film. The novel and transformative experience of photographing his quiet, peaceful surroundings drastically altered the character of his subsequent urban street photography. Meyerowitz abandoned his prior active and “gestural” approach, in which he created images full of people and motion, and instead made subtle and contemplative studies of natural light in urban landscapes.

Joel Meyerowitz. American, born 1938. St. Louis (building with bricked-in garage doors),1977. Vintage chromogenic contact print. Gift of Nicole Moretti Ungar, class of 1982, and Jon Ungar. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 2011:71-139.

Joel Meyerowitz. American, born 1938. Empire State (Fowler-Williams),1978. Vintage chromogenic contact print. Gift of Nicole Moretti Ungar, class of 1982, and Jon Ungar. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 2011:71-122.

In his series St. Louis and the Arch (1977) and Empire State (1978), Meyerowitz proves that beauty can even be found in such mundane places as a parking garage or loading dock. He presents these overlooked city scenes with a keen eye for the expressive nuances of light and shadow, yet Meyerowitz retains what he calls the “street wit” of his earlier work. For instance, the iconic Empire State Building appears in every Empire State series photograph, yet the tallest building in New York is so overshadowed by the arresting beauty the rest of the scene that it may go completely unnoticed. Meyerowitz’s photographs teach us to look slowly, carefully, and deeply at our surroundings in order to make a connection with a particular place or moment in time, as he does in his work: “It may be the slant of the light, it may even be a smell, something not visible; you may feel yourself rooted to the spot where suddenly there’s a smell of salt water mixed with roses, and it’s got your number. At that moment you know, ‘I’m alive. Here, now.’”

These and other photographs by Joel Meyerowitz, Garry Winogrand,and Danny Lyonare currently on view in Eye on the Street: Trends in 1960s and 1970s Photographyat SCMA until October 6, 2013. Catch Eye on the Street before it closes this weekend!

Joel Meyerowitz. American, born 1938. Empire State (Yale Trucking),1978. Vintage chromogenic contact print. Gift of Nicole Moretti Ungar, class of 1982, and Jon Ungar. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 2012:84-47.

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