01-01-2014 - Traces, n. 1

joel meyerowitz


New York, Cape Cod, sleepless nights in St. Petersburg, Cézanne’s objects, Ground Zero–a common thread runs through the work of this American photographer, who is one of the fathers of street photography: a sense of loss, continual wonder–and risking everything, every day.

by Luca Fiore

“Tell me what you see. Give me some feedback.” Joel Meyerowitz is seated in Milan’s San Fedele Art Gallery, which is hosting the exhibition “Sightseeing–A Sentiment of Life,” curated by Giovanni Chiaramonte in collaboration with Ultreya and Leica. In front of him are his latest images, taken last year in Paul Cézanne’s studio. It is the first time that they have been exhibited, and the response is instinctive: “I’m impressed by the gray.” “Really?” The many lines in his face compress into an expression of astonishment.
  Meyerowitz is like that–it doesn’t matter if his name is written in books about the history of photography, he needs to know what you think. After a 50-year career, he finds himself as if starting over, with the wonder of the beginning in his eyes. In the 1960s, he was one of the fathers of street photography. In the ’70s, he discovered landscape photography: the horizon from the coasts of Cape Cod, and the subtle colors of sleepless nights in St. Petersburg. In 2001, he was the only photographer to obtain unlimited access to the Ground Zero site. And 2013 was the year of Cézanne.

Let’s start from the end. Why Cézanne’s studio?
Two years ago, my wife and I were in Provence to work on a book. At some point, we went to visit Cézanne’s studio to pay homage. I was very struck by the fact that he had painted his studio dark gray. And I thought, “Why did he, the father of modern painting, choose gray?”

What was your answer?
Before Cézanne, they were still painting “salon style,” which gives an illusion of deep space, a Renaissance perspective... Everything had a “real look” to it. But Cézanne broke from that. He started making patches of paint. A patch indicated the green jar, and another patch indicated the gray wall. But he didn’t push the wall back. He just put them next to each other. And with this slow buildup of patches of paint, he began to invent flatness. Modern art is flat. It isn’t trying to give us a sense of things in the distance like the 19th-century work did.

And the gray wall?
It was the raison d’être behind the idea of flatness. Because, if he had painted the wall white, then every object there would have a reflection around the edges. White does that, it bounces off, comes around; everything would be rounded off a little bit. Gray allows it to go back. And I thought that was a strategy.

This is the first time that you have photographed objects as such.
They are very simple still-lifes; there is no “art” in these pictures. There’s the rich tonality of gray, and the subtle characteristics of each of these objects. They are not art objects: dusty old broken bits of pottery, tin coffee pots, the skull. They are objects that Cézanne used for his still-lifes. I photographed them in his studio, with the same light with which he saw them. No one had touched them for a hundred years. Then I put the 25 images together and made one piece. This is different from the other work that I am doing now. It’s a risk. I don’t know if this is a good work of art–I mean it.

How is this related to your past work?
While I was at Ground Zero, every day I saw objects that had flown out of the buildings, private property of those people, things that were in their workspace. Many objects I saved and I gave to the museum; they have a collection of artifacts, like when you go to Pompeii: a notebook, a set of keys, a stuffed animal... I took pictures of many of them. It was a copy of them; I wasn’t trying to make anything of it.

Was there an object that struck you in particular?
One day, a fireman gave me a Bible. This Bible had been buried underground, seven stories down. And the heat had melted the Bible onto a piece of steel. It had been burned, soaked in water, covered in concrete dust, ripped apart... and the page it was opened to was “an eye for an eye” (from Exodus 21). It’s an amazing thing. I lived with that Bible in my house for many years, then I gave it to the museum. All of these things–Ground Zero, my book on Tuscany, the gray wall–brought me, in little steps, to the objects in Cézanne’s studio.

Wim Wenders (the famous German playwright, filmmaker, writer, and photographer) speaks of coming with you to photograph Ground Zero one morning, and reports that he heard you say that you had never seen a morning as beautiful as that one. At Ground Zero, of all places?
It’s the burial ground of 3,000 people. I spent nine months there. Many times I experienced awe and beauty, and I said to myself, “It’s beautiful,” then, “Am I crazy?” It was beautiful, because it became nature: the sunrise in the morning, mist rising, rainbows, snow falling, storms, golden afternoon sunlight. I saw it all, and I photographed it all, because it was beautiful. Once the towers fell, nature took over. It’s sublime.

In what sense?
The sublime is in nature: the waterfall, the abyss, the storm, raging seas. They teach us awe. At Ground Zero, when gravity took over and pulled down those buildings and they fell, they made a kind of new sublime out of a terrible beauty. It’s what I responded to, and I’m sure that’s what Wenders responded to–the terrible beauty, the contemporary sublime. It’s something to think about.

Many masters of photography in the 20th century were Jewish. Is that a coincidence or is there something more? What have you found in your Jewish tradition that has helped to develop your way of taking photographs?
It’s a delicate question, but it has a lot of truth in it. Many of the very best photographers in the 20th century had Jewish heritage. It’s strange, because Jews don’t have a visual culture, in Biblical terms. The graven image is not Jewish. Nor is it Muslim. Christians use pictures, Muslims use calligraphy, Jews... for them, words are words. But for some reason, the 20th century, particularly in America, had a strong visual tradition, and an interest in photography grew among the Jews. I think it’s because Jews are very socially conscious people; as an oppressed people, driven out of their land, they are very sensitive to changes in social dynamics, and they are incredibly watchful. And this watching and this interest in social dynamics produced Freud, Lenin, and Einstein, as well as numerous musicians and artists. But it’s a kind of social consciousness, a kind of respect for an emotional sense of loss that brings them to photography. Because photography is about loss–the moment is gone. I think that Jews understand something about this loss and are sensitized to it. I could name Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand, Irvin Penn, Robert Capa, Robert Frank, Alfred Stieglitz...

The artist David Hockney says that he learned to see reality through drawing. What have you learned by taking photographs?
I have learned to polish my intuition about what will happen next. I don’t have ESP, but I have a quality of knowing–I can predict quite regularly when something is going to happen. I read the street as if it’s a text. I can tell you that someone over there walking this way will cross paths with that other person in 20 seconds, and I will be in the right place in that moment to capture it. And that’s not all that will happen, because there are two more, three more, four more people, and I’m reading all of the layers of the street as they come to me. I can often intuit when people in a place will come together, and make something visible that is not visible now.

After 50 years as a photographer, what has remained the same as in the beginning?
At the beginning, when I knew nothing, all I had was a sense of wonder. Things seemed astonishing to me, they seemed wonderful, full of wonder: that person, the gesture of someone brushing her hair, would be so beautiful and poetic for one split second, and then disappear. I wanted to be ready with my camera to photograph it. It’s still like this. I treasure the day–daily I stop somewhere and just look at something and say, “It’s so beautiful.” It makes me stop. The world is just filled with awesome moments, so I live for that experience again. I want to be able to say, “Wow.” It’s something that wounds you. The things I photograph are awesome. They are filled with human pungency, human energy. That’s what really counts, having another experience that I feel penetrates within, and risking everything on any given day.