Joel Meyerowitz is a pioneer of street photography. He started in the early 1960s in New York City, using color film when most other photographers were shooting in black-and-white. He’s had exhibitions of his work all over the world, and has published more than 30 books. A retrospective of his work is scheduled to be shown in Berlin later this year, and he’s working on a new project of self-portraits. At age 82, he’s continuing to explore the medium of photography every day.
In April 2020, during the isolation of the corona-virus lockdown, he took time for a wide-ranging conversation with Jim Casper. Among other things, they talked about: how a photographer finds his or her own voice in photography; memories of working the streets of NYC in the 1960s with Garry Winogrand and Tod Papageorge; documenting the aftermath of 9/11; how iPhones have changed the texture of street photography forever; and advice for how to key into your own personal inspiration to make photographs that are uniquely your own.
He’s an enthusiastic, animated speaker, and his love of photography comes through every minute.
LISTEN to this conversation while looking at some of Meyerowitz’s iconic photographs in the article below. We’ve also provided a written version of the conversation for those who prefer to read. Enjoy!
To start with, you once said, “An ordinary life isn’t ordinary when you put a frame around a moment.” I wonder if you could talk about that and tell me what transforms an ordinary moment into an extraordinary photograph?
Well, that’s actually a lovely quote. I said that? [laughs] Well, we all — without a camera — live our lives looking at everything. We’re just constantly swiveling our head and seeing things, but we’re not making anything out of it. And for me, photography is the act of making something out of the fluid reality that’s scrolling by us all the time.
We individually have some sense of what’s important to us. And by carrying a camera, you have this fluid frame. And if instinct — you know, gut instinct or gut recognition — raises a moment of consciousness, the camera comes up and you’re in that moment and the frame gets rid of the stuff all around that you don’t want.
Of course it’s a moving frame when you bring up the camera and you are impulsively moving things to put more space left-right, top-bottom, include-exclude. But that’s a decision and a conscious decision. Even if we make it on impulse, it’s still our decision. And there’s a certain kind of consistency to that over time. Just look at Robert Frank. Cartier-Bresson, Garry Winogrand. Anybody who shoots regularly has a point of view, a way of referring to the world that they see, that we identify after a while.And for me, I think it’s the identity that each of us has that becomes visible in the frame that the camera places around fluid reality. So it’s both a challenge and a very interesting way of learning about yourself. For me, it’s been an incredible self-education throughout the course of my life. What am I capable of seeing at any given moment in my evolution? What else can I see in the world? How else can I use photography as a resource to show me my interests, my capacities, my visual sensitivity, my reading of the public space of the time we’re living in? I use it in a lot of different ways to educate myself.
And it comes across. I do feel like I’m looking through your eyes when I’m looking at your photographs. I’m seeing seeing the world the way you see it. And I really like that. I like taking that trip through the streets and noticing what you notice.
Yeah. But you know what, I want to add something to that because I think it’s important. How can I put this? The challenge really is to be open enough as an artist that the photograph I may take is not such a fixed work of art that it stands out there and you look at it and then move on to the next framed piece in the show. I’m trying to make them portals into the momentary characters of reality so the viewer can enter in as if they’re standing in my shoes.
I try not to be too managerial. I try not to lock it down so that it has certain familiar characteristics about framing or formal organization. I like the loose, broken, open-ended quality of photography because then the viewer enters and has an experience of their own, of that moment in time. And that’s the thing I think I’m sharing.
That’s interesting, this kind of loose, open, broken nature. Are there essential qualities for a street photograph to really work for you? Are there certain elements or certain things that have to come together to make a street photograph stand out?
Well, first of all, I think the most important quality is the surprise of recognizing something that has manifested itself now, out of the chaos of the street. Suddenly there’s a sense — there’s never certainty, but there’s a sense — that there are elements gathering together in front of me that might produce something interesting. And it’s not that it happens and I raise the camera. I often see things up the street coming towards me that are exciting my mind’s potential. I think of it as “reading the text of the street.”
That’s one of those things that I’ve said before because it is a fluid kind of text. And if you are paying attention to the whole, which means where you are as you’re walking — but also everything that’s in the stream coming at you — then you’re likely to suggest to yourself, Oh, I know if I move to the right a little bit and that messenger on his bike weaving through the crowd, and the two guys carrying the plate glass window, and the woman with the poodle — they may all come within some relationship to each other if I continue this pace that I’m at. Or do I have to lurch forward a little bit so that I might be in a time zone when all these things interact in an interesting way? So it’s about being. For me, it’s the enlivening of my consciousness when I’m out in the streets so that everything is in play. Otherwise we’re sleepwalking.
For me, photography is the act of making something out of the fluid reality that’s scrolling by us all the time.
So, it seems that you have to be “extra alert” to be noticing all those things.
Yeah, a heightened sense of alertness is important. And I say, what better way to be as a human being? If we’re not using our heightened sense of awareness, then we’re functioning at a sort of half level of consciousness. I think carrying the camera is such an act of liberation. It means I have the license to see whatever is out there and make a picture of it. And so it makes me feel engaged. And that engagement is everything.
This may sound like a naive question or a stupid question, but how do you sustain that hyper alertness? And how do you get there if you’re not there already? Is there some kind of a warmup exercise that you could recommend?
[Laughs] I think it dawns on each individual over time what it is they need to function as the artists they want to be. I’m as asleep as anybody else when I’m out on the street. But when I have the camera, and if the street is lively or, you know, promising, then I suddenly feel myself saying, ‘Oh, Oh, you know, I like the smell!’ I can smell the flowers. I can walk past the bakery. I smell fresh croissants being made. It comes in the air, it’s a fragrance. I’m suddenly keyed up by everything that’s on offer in front of me. And my memory of having done this for the last 40 years is the thing that encourages me to do it again.
It’s that kind of athletic physicality combined with a kind of mental alertness that makes me feel alive.
Because it’s not that I want to make great photographs; I don’t think they happen that often. But what I want to do is be in that zone of being interested enough that should something memorable happen, I will at least be present and awake, and have a camera in my hand, cocked and ready to go. So it’s that kind of athletic physicality combined with a kind of mental alertness that makes me feel alive. And we have such a short time on this planet that feeling the vitality… I have to be honest, at my age, my energy is fading. It is in decline, just naturally. It is harder to do my exercises in the morning. It is harder to have the appetite to go out and see it all. But I overcome that by memory. Sure. It was so good yesterday when I was out. What am I going to see today?
Right. So you encourage yourself to just get started and show up for work.
Yeah, it’s a self-mobilizing medium, photography. Because for the most part, it depends on everything out there. Unless you’re a studio photographer making still lifes. Or working with subjects in the studio that you can control in some way. But a street photographer has to go out to function.
When you start out, do you have an intention or a strategy at the beginning of the day? Or are you just putting yourself out there to be open to what presents itself to you?
Yeah, I don’t have a strategy when I go out. I’ve learned over all these years that you can plan, but you can’t plan the outcome. You just say, I’m going out. You know, I’m going to go take a walk on Regent Street, or I’m going to go to Soho, or I’m going to go somewhere because I haven’t been there and I’d like to see what it feels like to me.
Then out on the street, things present themselves in a way that is totally unexpected. And I find myself living off the small high of each of those unexpected moments. It’s a kind of uplifting, energizing sort of inspiration to keep going, to keep seeing. And before you know it, I’ve walked five or six miles and I’ve been laughing half the time at the crazy things I see. I’ve had a bunch of human encounters along the way, which were pleasant or surprising. Or you know, ‘Hey, Joel!’ as strangers sometimes recognize you. So, I feel like it’s just living in a way, in the unexpected, and then taking the gifts that come from being out in the world at large and just enjoying myself.
I find myself living off the small high of each of those unexpected moments. It’s a kind of uplifting, energizing sort of inspiration to keep going, to keep seeing. And before you know it, I’ve walked five or six miles and I’ve been laughing half the time at the crazy things I see.
It is sweet. And if I didn’t have fun doing it… after all we’re alive, we should have some fun. You know, and work at the same time.
We’re in this kind of life-changing moment with this Corona virus and everyone’s in lockdown. And it reminds me a lot of the feeling I had around 9/11. Like this feeling of being under attack and this kind of anxiety. I know you were the only official photographer at Ground Zero in the aftermath. And I wonder if you could talk a little bit about how that might’ve changed your approach. You talk about going out in the street and having fun and having wonderful human encounters, but at that time you were really documenting things for history as well. So did that change your approach?
Yeah, 9/11. I was feeling the necessity to do something as a native New Yorker, to do something for my city, particularly when I heard that Mayor Giuliani had once again acted in his own fascistic way and had prohibited any photographs from being made in Ground Zero. I think he was rightly afraid that there would be photographers who wanted to make money off of the death and the horror of what was inside there. And so he banned that photography.
But I had appealed to him to allow me to go in with a group of six photographers, a videographer, and an oral historian. I had chosen three women and three men that I thought would work alongside of me. And we would do it like the FSA photographs during the Depression. We would cover the World Trade Center and produce an archive. And Giuliani said basically, ‘Fuck off. No one’s going in. We don’t want any record of this at all.’And I thought, that’s impossible. What about the First Amendment, the right of free speech? And how could you dare and take away a record of this trauma that’s playing out in lower Manhattan? And so I just said, fuck you, I’m going to find a way in. And I made my own connections through people I knew in New York. And little by little I was able to hustle some [official-looking] identification and I got in, and I stayed in even though they threw me out every day for almost 50 days. But I persisted. And then finally I was really close friends with a team of detectives. They were known at that time as the Arson and Explosion Squad, and they became my protectors. At some point when they were forced to leave the site, after their 50 days, they took me into police headquarters and under cover of darkness, they had me photographed, fingerprinted and issued an NYPD ID with my barcode and my fingerprint and on it, and [they printed the title]: ‘Mayoral Photographer’ — Mayoral! [laughs].
And so when I went down that very same evening and I went in there carrying my view camera, my video camera, my 35 millimeter, my six-by-seven. I walked in clanking like a robot and somebody stops me and said, ‘Hey buddy, no photographs allowed!’ And I [flashed him my official badge under my lapel]. And he said, ‘Oh, right this way sir.!’
Yeah, but so what happened to me though, you asked how that changed me. Ultimately after nine months of really being with the blue collar gang, the people I grew up with in the Bronx… You know, I, fortunately through being an artist, escaped that life. But I lived that life as a child until I went to college and all of my friends basically became cops and firemen and postmen, you know, the guys I grew up with. So here I was once again back with my guys in Ground Zero, with thousands of them. And I was able to talk that language again and feel their commitment, the beauty and the compassion of their commitment, and to celebrate the search for their dead brothers, fathers, sons.
Today, I just read in the Times that one of the firemen I knew down there, Petrocelli, he died today. He lost his son and his brother, and I knew him when he was searching for the remains of his son. So, and just to read today that he died at 73, younger than me, probably from some of the toxins that I suffer from now and that he probably did too from the time we spent there. But it brought me back to basics, you know, to looking at the humble tasks that fall on the shoulders of these people. Just like the nurses, the doctors of today who are front line in these hospitals, putting their lives at risk. You know, the same was going on for all those firemen looking for the dead.
The ‘working class heroes’ as John Lennon used to say.
Yeah, right. Exactly. Every backhoe operator and grappler and crane operator and truck driver… people had come from all across the country. So there I was back in my original element of regular people rather than in the more sophisticated realm of the art world. And, and I loved it, frankly. I loved the feeling of it. And when I came out of it, it made me realize that I needed to do more public service work in the course of my life to not only devote myself to my personal study of what is photography to me, but how can I use photography to better the quality of life in some way, what can I offer as a giveback?
I wonder if you have any advice for photographers who feel this impulse to document or to record this historic moment, but it’s dangerous to be out on the streets? And also the streets are empty.
I would say to younger photographers at this moment — because I’m not capable of it. I suffer from some lung issues from being in Ground Zero and I’m 82 so I shouldn’t put myself at higher risk. These are the last years of my life, and my wife and I want to enjoy them together. So I’m not going to — even though my impulse is ‘I want to go out and and see what it looks like.’ — I’m thinking, you know what, there’s a whole other cadre of photographers, men and women who are capable of doing this, and they should be finding ways to document their role in this time. And if it means wearing the protective gear — I wore a hard hat. I wore protective goggles. I had a respirator with two cans here. I had gloves, boots. I mean, I was ready for bear, you know. And still I’ve suffered even with all that protective gear.
So I would say protect yourself, but go out there and do the job that your photographic appetite suggests to you. What is it that you’re interested in? Because emptiness is important. It’s good to have a record of this time for history, but also how are the people in the stores managing? Who are they? And the fact that they’re sacrificing themselves in the little grocery store, that every single person comes in and hands them their card or money, they’re breathing on them. These people who are putting the groceries in every day. You know, there are small stories there that could add up to a much larger picture if there was an artist with a sensitivity about seeing the whole in this time, in this critical time.
One time you mentioned something to the effect of ‘iPhones have changed street photography forever.’ When I heard that my first thought was you were maybe talking about technology or that everyone’s a photographer now that everyone has a camera in their phone. But then I came to understand, I think what you were saying was that it changed the way people interact in the street. Everyone’s walking around staring at their phones and they’re not really engaged in eye-to-eye contact or participating in the drama of the street. So, is that what you meant?
Yes. When I said that iPhones have changed the texture of the street and street photography, I meant it in several different ways. One, people are always … they walk along like this talking into the bottom, or they’re gesticulating with it, or it’s distracting them because they’re watching something.
So, no longer is that sexy kind of ‘scoping it out on the street’ at play. If you look at the older photographs of mine or Garry’s, or anybody who worked the streets, you can see sight-lines crisscrossing. If you were to draw strings across the frame, you would see the visual dynamic of people’s interaction with each other, even if it was just to sidestep somebody so you didn’t bump into them. But the smiles that flickered on people’s faces, or the raised eyebrows, or the interest … sometimes it’s three or four people all looking off at one moment to something happening over there.
So the street had a kind of physical, visual dynamic. [But now] what you see on the street, in effect, are all these phones. On every photograph there’s going to be a dozen phones showing up. So the pictures are subverted. Suddenly it looks like you’re not just making a picture of your time, but you’re making a commentary on the use of phones. And so that adds a familiarity to every single picture, and it derails certain emotional momentary observations that might be the heart of the picture because now you see eleven phones.
I think it’s like putting a torque on what is the nominal subject of the picture. Is it about that couple and the great dress she’s wearing and the way sunlight is shining on her lips and on her hair? Or is it about those eleven people with their cell phones in crazy positions?
Right, right. It really undermines the romanticism that you might have, even just in your own imagination, about what’s going on.
You know, about a year ago I decided to try to make some street photography myself. I’d never done this before, and it looks so easy, right? It just looks so easy. Yet I found that I was terrified, and I really got kind of paralyzed, not wanting to break into someone else’s space. But after a while, like after about an hour-and-a-half, my worries disappeared and I got into some kind of a flow, and it was so nice! And I realized that without even being conscious of it, I was tracking where the light was all the time, where the source of light was. I wanted my back to be at the light so everything in front of me was well lit. You have to be conscious of where the light is all the time, right?
Yes. The light is everything on the street. And you know, it’s funny you say that the light was behind you, so it was lighting up everything in front of you. When I began and I was using Kodachrome film what I really loved was being on Fifth Avenue, walking downtown from early morning through lunch hour, because Manhattan streets run in a grid: North, South, East, West. When you get on Fifth Avenue, it’s facing South, so it has the light almost the whole day. First it’s on the west side of the street because it’s moving out of the East. And then during the afternoon it shifts over, as it goes slightly west, and the east side of the street is lit up. Kodachrome was incredibly beautiful when it was rendering hard sunlight. And I love the slap of hard sunlight in the way that it lit up the colors. New York wasn’t so colorful in the ’60s, like it is today. Fabrics were different. They were… the tonality was different.
So it wasn’t about hot color as much as it was about incisive sunlight. The etched quality and the way the urban environment of tall buildings made of steel and glass and granite — the way they flickered and shivered in the harsh New York light. So my feeling was, I wanted full rendering. I wasn’t looking for a romantic backlighting or any of that stuff. I was looking for that slap, because Kodachrome film was incredibly slow. The ASA was 25 in the sixties — 25.
Man, you had to keep that camera still!
Well, you could work in hard sunlight at 250th at 6.3 — that was the standard exposure for Fifth Avenue on a sunny day for information in the shadows and tone in the highlights. You could count on it day in and day out. Only if it was a slightly in-and-out cloudy day would you have to figure it’s going to be 4.5, 5.6. You know, we knew our exposures. The cameras were not automatic cameras. The Leica was a manual camera. Everything was manual and it never fell asleep like the new ones do all the time.
Right, right, right. There’s that one photograph, one of many famous photographs that you made, where there’s a couple walking and there is steam coming out of the ground and their shadows are cast on the backs of some other people wearing some fancy coats. But the light is what ‘makes’ that photograph. Right?
Sure. And you know, it was my afternoon swing because by the afternoon the sun had moved into such a position that it was now backlighting. If you were heading south on Fifth Avenue, the sun was behind people. So Garry and I, or Tod and I, we’d switch over to the east side of the street and walk uptown from lower Manhattan. And that’s a classic example of about four o’clock, three-thirty in the afternoon. The angle of the light… and bingo, the smoke coming out like this. You know, New York has an entire heating system underneath the streets … and there are these vents and manhole covers all over the city. When the temperature outside is a certain chill, then the moisture coming up from the release gates basically makes these plumes of smoke. So on every block you’re getting puffs of condensation that people walk through. I mean, it’s magical.
Kodachrome was incredibly beautiful when it was rendering hard sunlight. I love the slap of hard sunlight in the way that it lit up the colors… It wasn’t about hot color as much as it was about incisive sunlight.
What a nice lighting and stage effect! I would have loved to have seen you and Garry in action, walking up the streets. Did you do that a lot together?
Garry and I worked together, I would say, for three years. Three solid years, every day. He would call me, usually. He had kids at the time. He was divorced, but his kids would stay with him two or three nights a week, and he’d get them off to school and then he would call me and say, ‘Let’s meet at the greasy spoon at 96th street.’ We’d meet at 96th. He lived on 93rd, I lived on 100th, so we were equidistant. We’d meet at 96th, we’d have a coffee, Danish (ah Cheese Danish!) And then we’d walk through Central Park and all the way down through Central Park Zoo because Garry was working on the animals book then. And then we’d come out of Central Park Zoo onto Fifth Avenue and 59th and we just walk down 59th Street down Fifth Avenue all the way to 42nd, 34th, whatever was right. We’d turn around, we’d come back up. We’d be shooting together, but apart and just keeping each other company for the day. And every once in a while we’d say, did you see that? Or, I got this. And there was no way to show anybody what you got, right? Thank goodness. And then we’d stop off in MoMA for lunch and we’d have a sandwich in the cafeteria there and hang out for a while and then back out on the street for lunchtime. We’d always catch a sort of either early lunch or late lunch because the streets were busier at noon.
We even traveled in California together and we traveled in Europe together. We were intensely close for those three and a half years. And then I lived in Europe in ’66 and ’67 and when I came back, I was really my own man. Tod Papageorge had joined Garry and me in 1965. And so we were a trio for a year on the street. We liked each other’s company. We talked about photography. We were trying to understand what there was to say about it.
Tod Papageorge had joined Garry and me in 1965. And so we were a trio for a year on the street. We liked each other’s company. We talked about photography. We were trying to understand what there was to say about it.
And so when I came back there we were all three together again, but I had just had a year on my own, and I realized that year changed me. I didn’t want to be subject to anybody else’s decision making. Like, you know, you’re on the street, you think, oh, I’m going to go left, and then Garry wants to go right, and Tod wants to go straight ahead. So it’s like, well, which way do we go? And I felt that for my own continued growth and independence that I needed to do stuff on my own. And it pained me because these were my two best friends and both photographers and we all had such lively, engaged conversations. But you know, sometimes your time is up and, and you maintain your friendship, but you change the texture of it.
You and I had a nice conversation in London a couple of years ago and we were talking about whether it’s possible to teach people photography, or how to help people get better, how to develop a voice. And you said something really interesting about your philosophy of inspiration.
Well, you know, I do teach photography — no longer in workshops the way I used to, but online, in the Masters of Photography. I think you met Chris Ryan [who develops these in-depth masterclasses for online students].
Yes, that’s a great series. I’ve looked at those repeatedly.
And there are certain lessons that become codified. I think every teacher has a few things that they say that they know will strike a chord. And for me, this notion of the ‘gasp reflex’ is what I call it, because so many people, whether they were students or whether they’re online, they say, how do you know when to make a photograph?
So it’s up to each person. But if you trust something in you that is the pure you, that usually is a moment when something happens and you see it and you go [makes the sound of a quick intake of breath] and that little gasp is inspiration, right? You inspire oxygen in a jolt and it goes into your lungs and immediately lights up your brain because it fires all the cells of your brain faster. You become oxygenated and alert and connected. If you recognize that those are the instances in which you yourself, the true you, not the cerebral you who thinks, ‘I should go out and photograph, you know people with food carts today.’
I think that photography is a search for your identity as an artist and as a human being. It’s like your fingerprint. You make pictures a certain way. If you try to make them to look like other people’s photos, you’ll never discover yourself.
If you photograph when you have that momentary gasp reflex over time — if you separated those out — you would begin to see your true identity. And I think that photography is a search for your identity as an artist and as a human being. It’s like your fingerprint. You make pictures a certain way. If you try to make them to look like other people, you’ll never discover yourself. You’ll always be imitating someone else’s program. So my encouragement is for everybody to try to find what is uniquely their way of responding to the world, their way of framing the world, their sense of timing, the degree of closeness or distance they need to be in order to feel this way. And if you track your impulses, you will begin to see your own dots along the line that say, Oh, these are me at my truest.
And then you have something to work with, and you can choose to strengthen that by trusting it more. Or you could choose to leave it and copy somebody else and be forever lost. I mean, lost to yourself. You may make pictures that look like somebody else’s, but then they’re not yours. They look like, you know, Diane Arbus. They look like Lee Friedlander. They look like, you know, whoever your recent teacher is at the workshop. I mean, isn’t that what we’re here for in the course of this brief life we’re going to have on the planet. Don’t you want to know something about true identity?
I think for me it’s always been ‘what makes an interesting challenge, photographically’? You know, I went from being a street photographer to using a large format camera and making landscapes. And then that camera sort of brought me to portraiture and then something else brought me to still life and something else made me take pictures from a moving car, you know, when I was living in Europe the first time — and that was a show I had at MoMA — from a moving car. So all along the way I find myself interested in photography as a medium. And in the medium there are many different disciplines. So how is it when you go from being a street guy to suddenly challenging Ansel Adams in a sense, you know? Because you want to photograph landscape, but is that the landscape you want to photograph, or are you going to invent a landscape for yourself or redefine it in some way as every generation does?
So I just think that photography — over my course through it for these 58 years — is to ask questions of it that provoke me into investigating it further and seeing how flexible it is, and is there something for me to say in this new way of looking at things photographically for me?
I do celebrate that we’re alive! And we see! What incredible wonder. We see in color and the world is constantly surprising us. Even though the sun comes up the same. You know, the next day the sun comes up, it’s all over again. You get a fresh chance, but it’s such a celebration to be alive.
I said right at the beginning, photography has taught me everything I know basically all this time. And I think it comes to me in a kind of slowly dawning consciousness again and again. Oh, this is interesting too! And I get like a kid, I get that kind of excited astonishment. My wife always says to me, ‘This line in your head is because you are always wide-eyed and like, Oh wow!’. It’s like my eyebrows are raised all the time … I’m always in wonder, you know, at how remarkable it is, the simplest of things. And it’s allowed me to go simple. And to look at the way wind moves through grass, or the way peaches got put on that piece of newspaper. Or whatever it is — it’s wonder. I’m not a negative person. I’m not scathingly ironic. I tend to just love human nature and nature itself and the opportunity to pass along the experience through the camera’s eye.