A MOMENT WITH JOEL MEYEROWITZ
For the launch of the new webzine dedicated to « street »documentary photography, Joel Meyerowitz, who inspired the GASP collective, offers us an exclusive interview. And for this occasion and in exclusivity, he made an original selection of 19 of his images.
CA. Hello Joel,
Thank you for accepting our invitation. We are very honoured to welcome you in our columns, for the first interview of the new webzine dedicated to documentary photography « in a street photography way ».
We couldn’t have dreamed better for the launch of the Collective’s webzine than to give you the floor because you are in a way the inspiration for the name of our collective.
As a reminder, during the signing » Cape Light » on the stand Aperture in Paris Photo 2016, I asked you about street photography and you wrote me a note and gave me a very beautiful and essential definition about the essence of photography. I can’t resist the temptation to put it here.
Can you tell us more about your definition of the decisive moment, the moment that caused you to GASP?
JM. It takes a long time to figure out just where and how the photographic moment appears as purely an, ‘our moment,’ for each of us. Lots of trials and risks go into the understanding of our identity out in the world. The moment when the alignment of what you see and who you are come together like the lines in a Leica rangefinder, suddenly you feel whole. I’ve always felt that most of our waking lives we walk around in the world in a trance-like state of watching and looking, but more often than not, slightly dreamy and distracted. All of us: the pros and the rest.
But then – once in a while, and for the briefest of moments – we are startled awake by something out there, something that makes us Gasp with a pure recognition of the freshness of the seeing and the necessity of it. It is happening just for us. The moment is already leaving us as the gasp fills our lungs with fresh oxygen, and our minds light up with consciousness. That, is the photographic moment that you, and only you, can know.
CA. Polka Galerie invited you last year for a magnificent and rich two- part retrospective of your work, titled « Taking My Time.” It was a wonderful opportunity to rediscover your color work, which was a real treat. The sizes of the crowds at your two openings remain unparalleled in the Parisian photography world. This year, during the meetings of Rencontres d’Arles you exhibited about forty vintage prints, and, one of the highlights of the festival, looked back on your career while alone on stage in an ancient theatre.
Can we see any evidence, beyond the success of and enthusiasm for your work, of a growing interest in street photography? Do you think that the French in particular are returning to the fundamentals of photography — that is, an epitome of all genres in humanistic photography?
JM. I think there is an explosion of interest in photography in general, due to the smartphone revolution and the ease with which everyone now accepts photography as an everyday action. It is seen as an immediate way of saying something about their own lives, which people want to share widely. In that sense, street photography is entering another humanistic frame of reference. Everyone’s life is now a personal expression — somewhere between art and daily diary entry — and the boundaries are increasingly blurred.
I cannot say whether the French are any different than any other culture in this regard. However, there is a loss in France of a certain liberty, one which, had Cartier-Bresson been alive today, would have hampered his humanistic values. This is the prohibition the French legal system has put in place about making photographs on the street. Personally, I would stand up against this were I a French citizen and artist.
CA. Street photography is a state of mind and a form of writing that serves documentary photography. We are doubly delighted to welcome you here because you have been showing us from the beginning that the mixture of street photography and documentary photography is possible and even necessary. You have, most notably in your work from Ground Zero, presented with great strength, sensitivity and empathy, the work of the men who fought to save lives. We feel that we can see in this work the legacy of all the years spent walking the streets, as if with street photography you developed your sense of empathy and observation and a better understanding of people.
Can you tell us more about how street photography influenced your documentary work during your time in Ground Zero?
JM. Street photography teaches you to be observant, quick, decisive, and to act immediately upon the decision. It was with this kind of training that I entered the sanctuary of Ground Zero. I was prepared to document this act of terrorism against New York City, but not on my own. I was hoping to create a group of six other photographers who would, along side of me, create a rich document of all of the work going on in Ground Zero. But, the government and political forces who were protecting the privacy of Ground Zero, refused to grant permission to any team of photographers. Their reason being that they did not want to commercialize the record of what was being done inside Ground Zero. Of course, that was not my intention. I was responding, in many ways, to the documentary works made during the depression years in America when the FSA sent teams of photographers, such as Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee and many others, out to the furthest reaches of America to record what was happening during the depression, and how ordinary Americans were surviving and living through this crisis.
When the Mayor refused permission, I took it upon myself to find a way to get into Ground Zero and to work in a sort of undercover way to produce the archive that would be a gift to the people of New York City. I would have to say, being a street photographer in New York, and knowing how to be smart about being out on the streets, was what gave me the strength and the know-how to go up against the bureaucracy and to beat them at their own game.
CA. Your photographic journey is rich with experiments and upheavals in methods and tools: color versus black and white, 35mm versus large format, street photography versus still life.
Did this happen spontaneously or was it the result of strategic reflection?
JM. I have long felt that photography is my teacher. My role has always been to serve photography, and by doing so, the mysteries of the medium have slowly revealed themselves to me. Not all the mysteries of course, because the more one works in any medium, the greater the chance of finding more to discover within it. And so it has been for me.
When I look at my own path over 55 years, I see that there have been 7 or 8 changes of direction, and within those there were smaller diversions that suggested themselves. For example, I started in 1962 and immediately put color film in as my first roll. After about a year, I added black and white film so that I could start making prints. Later on, I started shooting out of a moving car and that became a body of work. Then, I moved away from the “incident” as the thing that makes the photograph and tried to open the frame up to include everything: what I called a ‘field photograph.’ During that time of giving up what I knew how to do best, I found myself switching to the large format view camera because the ‘field photograph’ idea suggested more information was necessary for me.
The view camera taught me to think about space and time in a new way, and I began making “Entre chien et loup” photographs, a new subject for me, followed by landscapes, portraits, and 3-part panoramic-like images. Using time in different ways has lead me to a new engagement with still lives, something I never before had an interest in. So, as you can see, the medium presents an idea (even if it is an old form) and if it speaks to me, I follow it.
CA. Are you still pursuing street photography and preparing something in this direction?
JM. Although I carry my Leica with me every day, and still make some work on the street (more out of old habit than new ideas) it is not my most urgent work right now. Anything coming out in book form about street photography now will most likely be work that never saw publication during the early years.
CA. In 1995, you decided to film a road trip you took with your son Sasha and your 89-year-old father, Hy, who had developed Alzheimer’s. During this trip between Fort Lauderdale and New York City, you produced the film POP, which is a magnificent testimony on the disease and also on the relationship between three men and three generations.
Did documenting these moments influence your approach to and your way of understanding photography?
JM. That film was yet another transition along with those I mentioned earlier. I had always wanted to make a film, and had tried writing scripts over the years but suddenly, on a visit to Florida where my parents lived, I saw my father was in trouble and that his memory was failing him. Then, he said something to me that was a trigger; he said, “You know, the trouble with me is that I never get to the point where I get to the point!”
This simple exclamation served to excite me so strongly that I immediately decided that THIS was the film that had to be made, because there are millions of people around the world who have a family member with failing abilities. So, I went forward, earned some money, and supported this small film, which by now has been seen by 40 million people.
This changed my life in the way that such intimate adventures can. Afterward, I felt that I needed to be more socially useful, and that is probably what led me to make the Ground Zero archive, and to work on the Legacy Project documenting wilderness within the borders of New York City.
CA. Photography has become more democratic. Everyone is producing images and these images are circulating at breakneck speed on the networks. As a result, we are seeing an increase in apprehension on the streets, a behavior justified by the public’s legitimate fear of finding themselves on various social networks.
What is the evolution of photography? Do you have any tips on how to defuse aggression?
JM. Photography has grown from pure specialization in the 19th century, with all its attendant technical issues, to a vast democratic system today where images circle the world within seconds of them being made. (I don’t say ‘capture’ because I think that we make photographs, those of us who think about the meaning and act of photography). Of course, billions of people are in everybody’s lives and the resistance to being used on the web has grown into a kind of suspicion.
At the same time, people have begun to feel as if they ‘own’ the rights to their ‘likeness,’ thereby setting up a monetary value for their image as if they were ‘famous.’ This seems to me to be an idea particular to the 21st century; that everyone can be famous. And not even for something, but to be famous just for being famous. I’ve heard kids say it and when asked, their response is, “I just want to be famous some day!”
CA. And finally,
What advice could you give to the photographers who travel the streets today?
JM. My advice, for whatever it is worth, is that the unexpected richness of the world offers those who look at it carefully and with an open heart, some possible understanding about themselves, and maybe even the world, and that should be enough to keep all photographers busy for a lifetime. It’s worked for me.