A photographer’s restless lifetime of paying attention

Randy Kennedy / New York Times News Service /

“Taking My Time” by Joel Meyerowitz (Phaidon Press, Inc., two-volume limited edition $700)

“I call it the Zen bell,” the photographer Joel Meyerowitz was saying recently, sitting in the sunshine in his Upper West Side apartment and studio, describing a nagging compulsion to begin a long-term project about banks in the wake of the Great Recession. “I’m not getting any ding from anywhere else right now, and I keep hearing it ringing. So I’m going to pay attention.”

During a career that turns 50 this year Meyerowitz has heeded the oracular signal so many different ways, in so many places, that his work has often seemed to be the product of more than one person: Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, where he made himself into a well-known street photographer in the early 1960s; Cape Cod, where his pictures of sky and artificial light helped crash the use of color into the black-and-white art photography world; Europe, where his cinematically complex urban scenes influenced a younger generation of photographers; ground zero after the Sept. 11 attacks, where he almost single-handedly created a pictorial archive of the recovery and cleanup.

The publication this month of “Taking My Time,” a heavy-duty two-volume retrospective book from Phaidon, puts these bodies of work in one place for the first time. And in weaving them together with scores of pictures never before published, it is likely to go a long way toward redefining the career of a groundbreaking artist who has had a tendency to fade into the background among his contemporaries.

Street photography

For those who recognize his name mostly because of “Cape Light,” the 1979 book that pioneered the use of color but whose scenes of summer cottages and ice cream shops are usually read through a haze of nostalgia, the retrospective book and a related two-part exhibition at the Howard Greenberg Gallery on East 57th Street in Manhattan will undoubtedly come as a surprise.

In many of his early street pictures, taken after Meyerowitz walked away from a good job at an advertising agency and began prowling Manhattan — often with Garry Winogrand, a fellow twenty-something also about to make a name for himself — America presents itself as a deceptively vertiginous place, teetering on the edge of late-’60s convulsion.

“There’s nobody who was doing quite as dramatically as Meyerowitz that kind of guerrilla style of street photography that he carried from the ’60s into the color work of the ’70s and ’80s,” said Brian Wallis, the chief curator of the International Center of Photography. “I’ve never understood why he’s never quite gotten his due.”

Meyerowitz, 74, who has been around photography long enough to understand its inherent fictions as well as anyone, said he has never seen himself as anything other than a member, still staunchly observant, of the “honor-what-you-see, the frame-is-the-frame generation.”

“The thought for us was always: ‘How much could we absorb and embrace of a moment of existence that would disappear in an instant?’” he said. “And, ‘Could we really make it live as art?’ There was an almost moral dimension.”

Working-class beginnings

The story of his formative years reads now like a trip through the pantheon. Meyerowitz, who was raised in a working-class family in the Bronx, was working as an art director at an advertising firm when he was assigned to accompany Robert Frank on a mundane commercial assignment. Frank had only recently published “The Americans,” which would go on to become one of the most important books in the history of photography. Meyerowitz knew nothing about him but remembers being stunned by the way he moved and used the camera, and what the camera got from so little. He said, “I thought, ‘My God, everything is so filled with anima.’”

He quit his job not long after. Piecing his financial life together by working as a building superintendent, he took a Pentax lent by his former boss (“He said to me: ‘You want to be a photographer? It’s a craft.’”) and began teaching himself to be a street photographer.

He met Winogrand — whose style had a decided effect on his own, though the influence ran both ways — when they were both on the subway on the way to visit their mothers in the Bronx. (Winogrand died in 1984.)

Meyerowitz studied with Alexey Brodovitch and Richard Avedon. In 1963, while shooting people watching the St. Patrick’s Day parade, he noticed an elegantly dressed man working the crowd too and realized it was Henri Cartier-Bresson. “He was weaving and dodging,” he said. “He looked like Jacques Tati.” He nervously asked him to coffee and the great photographer accepted.

“The one thing I knew at that time was that I needed to be on the street,” said Meyerowitz, who, slim, tall and now strikingly bald, looks like a Tibetan monk and exudes a complementary air of almost Buddhist contentedness. (His large apartment and studio, decorated with photographs — including one of him by Avedon — is a model of organized efficiency.)

“When I look back at who that kid was in the early 1960s, I was still painting, a kind of hard-edge abstraction,” he added. “But I was really hooked on an Ashcan-School-like view of real life, of the messiness and the complexity of it.”

The color question

The question of whether to shoot in color, a divisive one for art photographers at the time, many of whom saw color as hopelessly commercial, was never much of a question for him. He was carrying two cameras — one with black-and-white film and one with color — as early as 1965, and as soon as he was able to afford color darkroom equipment, he was shooting in color. “There were more elements at play,” he said. “The simple fact of the matter was that it just provided more information, and I wanted more information.”

By the mid-1970s he also began to grow restless with his own ideas about what good pictures meant. He started taking what he called field photographs, shots in which he tried to look beyond an obvious hook, a single locus of action — Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment” — and instead shoot from much further back to encompass more complex scenes. He said: “I wanted a picture that didn’t say itself right away, that didn’t give itself up. But that’s always risky, because you work with this fear that in trying to get too much, maybe you’re not getting anything.”

The philosophy, which lends a remarkably contemporary feel to many of his 1970s and 1980s pictures, laid the groundwork for the pictures that he took with a wooden view camera over nine months in 2001 and 2002 at ground zero, which became the basis for “Aftermath,” an archive of recovery pictures, published in 2006. “I wasn’t interested in making a great picture or a good picture,” he said. “I only wanted to get as much of what was happening there as I could, because it was my responsibility to history. It was my one chance to understand something about the making of history.”

Working for two years on the retrospective book, he said, was his first attempt to understand his own history. “I wanted it to be like an autobiography, with not only the successes but also the dead ends,” he said, “the things I don’t know if I’ve understood yet.”

He has never stopped shooting on the street. “I always have a camera,” he said. “If I’m out, I’m out.” But for the last several years he has been at work on a much more esoteric kind of project: making pictures to illustrate the classical elements of earth, fire, water and air.

“And let me tell you, a picture of dirt can be pretty damned dull,” he said. “I ask myself: ‘Is this insane? Is this another dead end or a way in?’ I’m still trying to find out.”