For nearly 60 years, Joel Meyerowitz has been drawn to the flower in its many splendored forms. Here he looks back at its role in his storied career.
Bronx-born photographer Joel Meyerowitz is no stranger to risk. At the age of 24, he put it all on the line when he quit his job at a New York-based advertising company to become a photographer after watching Robert Frank at a photoshoot. “I didn’t know who he was, what he stood for, or anything about photography,” Meyerowitz, now 83, recalls of that fateful day in 1962.
“I stood behind him so I could watch the way he was handling the different subjects. I could see it over his shoulder this little action was unfolding. He barely spoke to the preteen girls in front of the camera, he just grunted or made little body gestures. Each time their actions seemed to peak into something that had a fragmentary image of beauty I heard the click of his Leica.”
After the shoot, Meyerowitz went back on the street, and began to see extraordinary moments reveal themselves among the mundane. He remembers, “I walked through New York City, from 23rd Street to 53rd Street, just looking at everything. I had so many minor epiphanies along the way that by the time I got to the office I was filled with of desire to be on the street taking photographs. When I got upstairs, my boss asked me how it went and I said it was, ‘Fantastic, the shoot was great but I’m quitting on Friday. I have to become a photographer.’”
Joel Meyerowitz describes the scene in vivid detail, the way his boss stood silently with a small cigar clenched between his teeth, a little trickle of smoke going up and making his eye wink. “He was appraising me,” Meyerowitz says. “He was an artist himself so he understood that some transformative thing had happened to me. Then he loaned me his camera and out I went on Friday into the world.”
Color Me Beautiful
“I went out and bought two rolls of color,” Joel Meyerowitz recalls of his first foray into photography. “It never occurred to me to shoot in black and white because the world was in color.” Although the art world shunned color photography, Meyerowitz embraced it from the start. Trained as a painter, he naturally responded to the bold flashes of hue and tone, and recognized the emotional, psychological, and spiritual impact that it made.
One day in the late 1970s, while editing his work for a job Meyerowitz noticed that flowers seemed to play a significant role in his photographs. He recognized a pattern emerging, then returned to his archive with new intent, discovering hundreds of images in which the flower revealed itself.
“I have a lot of different interests in photography,” Meyerowitz observes. “I wondered if the flower, as fragile as it was, is a way of linking my landscape, interior, portraiture, street photography, still life work. As an exercise, I edited the pictures, laid them out, and showed it to a publisher. He got instantly and said, ‘Let’s do a book.’”
That book became Wild Flowers (New York Graphic Society/Little, Brown Company, 1983) a major departure from his previous monographs, Cape Light and St Louis & the Arch. “The book reflected something about the person I was becoming because I was willing to sabotage my own ‘career’ by doing something like this,” Meyerowitz says. “I was willing to risk being viewed as someone who did something with pretty flowers because I knew they were much more about serendipity and chance.”
Grow Where You are Planted
Like color photography, flower photography has been harshly judged by artistic institutions, the risks of becoming cliché or commercial casting a pall over the genre. “The flower is beautiful by its very nature,” Meyerowitz says. “It’s exotic, strange, silky, plasticky, rubbery, papery – it’s got a lot of characteristics and you can’t much add to it. A lot of people view pictures of flowers as shooting ducks in a barrel. That said there have been great photographers who have made bodies of work about flowers that are astonishing, mysterious, powerful, and even threatening sometimes.”
For Joel Meyerowitz, those concerns weren’t an issue because his work wasn’t about the flower in and of itself but about the relationship between this striking object and the larger environment. “I was just making photographs about life and energy, I always try to feel the street’s energy and the surprise of life’s unexpected events and moments,” he says. “To see a floral print on a dress, a messenger carrying bouquets of flowers or window dresser crossing the street carrying gigantic pom-poms — to see the flower and its vulnerability in the steel, glass, and granite canyons of New York was always a kind of a jolt.”
That unexpected surprise and delight never left Meyerowitz and his work, the flower threading itself through his images like a medieval tapestry of mille fleur. Although Wild Flowers was a success, it went out of print after two editions, with copies fetching hundreds of dollars online. Recognizing an opportunity, Meyerowitz has recently released an expanded edition of Wild Flowers (Damiani). “I liked the idea of butting heads against a cliché, the flower being a cliché in photography,” he says.
A Perennial Passion
Meyerowitz recognizes Wild Flowers as one of the only books he has made that could take an update, benefiting from his ongoing work as a street photographer. “The flower remained an open-ended investigation, offering itself in new patterns, colors, arrangements, and hybrids,” he says. “It keeps being reinvented and reused through fashion and people’s appropriation if it in life itself. I have a foundation in making those pictures so I recognize something a little edgier, works a little differently or allows me to restate an observation because I have moved along and also work digitally now.”
Always willing to take a risk, Joel Meyerowitz recounts the story of a Japanese camera company flying one of their Vice Presidents of design and the camera maker to Cape Cod in 1999 to bring him a handmade prototype: an Olympus Camedia C-2500L DSLR, produced between 1999 and 2001 and which, in addition to other qualities, was great for macro photography. “As soon as I handled that camera I thought to myself, photography has always developed by a new technology throughout the entire history of the medium,” he recalls. “I thought this is going to be a future, without a doubt.”
By Miss Rosen
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, including Time, Vogue, Aperture, and Vice, among others.
Wild Flowers, by Joel Meyerowitz, published by Damiani €50 / $55. Available here.
Read More: Rivka Katvan: Timeless New York