Some 300 miles northeast of New York’s 5th Avenue—and the frenetic sidewalks where Joel Meyerowitz made the pictures that made him famous—there’s a small beach community on a curling finger of land affectionately known as P’town.
In his luminous new book, Provincetown, Meyerowitz describes P’town as “a place of great natural beauty with endless sandy beaches, dunes, forests, and hidden ponds in the woods.” And yet among the book’s 100-plus images, you won’t find a single forest or pond; instead, Meyerowitz brings his city-sharpened eye and streetwise sense of the perfect moment to create tender, sun-kissed portraits of the people who spent their summers there in the 1970s and ’80s.
When Meyerowitz began summering in Provincetown—in the ’70s, in part to chase the area’s legendary light—he found a haven for writers and artists and creative spirits, for members of the gay and lesbian community, and for outsiders of all stripes. “What I discovered,” he writes in the book’s introduction, “was the manner in which the light penetrated and exposed people’s mystery, revealing their true identities in such a way that everyone became beautiful.”
Seeing the potential, he took out an in ad in the local paper that read, in part, “REMARKABLE PEOPLE! If you feel you are remarkable because of a birthmark, scar, personal experience, red hair, etc. [ . . .] I’d like to make your portrait.” They came and, using a large-format 8 x 10 camera, Meyerowitz made pictures.
He made the most warm-hearted picture of Norman Mailer the world has ever seen, with the author holding his young son in his burly arms. He made a picture of a white woman in a black bathing suit entwined with a black man in a white bathing suit. He made a mesmerizing picture of a summer-freckled kid with a hefty fish curving over the boy’s shoulders, its glistening eye catching ours.
But Meyerowitz also made pictures of men who loved men, and women who loved women: Two carefree-looking women, both in green shirts, pull each other close; a woman stands with a parrot on her shoulder while her partner’s hand wraps suggestively around her leg. In their subject matter, not to mention their composition and directness—the camera always approaches at eye-level, there is always eye contact, never a drop of sentimentality—these portraits appear incredibly modern. And the low-key sense of pride and ease that Meyerowitz captures in his subjects is quietly thrilling: Looking at them, it’s easy to forget that this was decades before Marriage Equality became the law of the land.
It was also before anyone had a sense of the devastation the AIDS epidemic would inflict on the gay community. The terrible knowledge of what’s coming—which the viewer holds but the men and women posing with the soft sea behind them do not—creates a sense of poignancy that builds as the pages turn.
With a pair of Guggenheim fellowships and more than 350 exhibitions to his name, nothing should surprise you about what Meyerowitz can accomplish with a camera. And yet his move from a 35mm Leica—a camera he could hold while threading his way through New York’s bustling streets—to a large-format plant-and-wait box is something to behold. He writes that the process of making these portraits led him to consider hard questions about what a portrait really captures, and whose truth it tells. “So what is a portrait?” he asks in Provincetown’s afterward. And then he answers: “Experiencing a moment of fascination in the presence of another person.” And in the case of this subtle, sensitive collection of portraits, it’s also the tug of time going by.
By Bill Shapiro
Bill Shapiro is the former editor of Life magazine, and the co-author of the recently
published book What We Keep.
27cm x 32cm, 160 pages