It’s 3 p.m. outside the signing booth at Paris Photo last November. Barely 5 minutes later, the queue is already long. It’s no secret that, in the world of photography, Joel Meyerowitz is something of a celebrity. Alongside Alex Webb, William Eggleston, Saul Leiter and Harry Gruyaert, he is one of the monuments of color street photography.
When he finally arrives, he’s wearing a hat and a broad smile. The kind of smile that lights up the room. No wonder Meyerowitz opted for color: he embodies it himself. Not in his clothes, which are rather drab, but in his eyes and that genuine smile that never falters, even in the hustle and bustle of the world’s biggest photography fair.
He leaves the crowded aisles of Paris Photo for the sofa of the Relais Bosquet hotel. There, he has the same hat, the same big smile and his latest book, A Question of Color. “My 53rd book. Far more than I ever imagined,” he laughs. He explains his vision of the world, photography, color, painting, music and art in general.
Where to start? Perhaps with the beginnings and his discovery of photography: a “revelation”. Joel Meyerowitz was 24 at the time. A painter, he worked as an art director in an agency. One day, he designed a brochure and Robert Frank, then a friend of his boss, was asked to illustrate it. “When I saw him photograph, my life changed. I saw him move and take pictures: he was always a fraction of a second ahead of what people were doing. He anticipated their actions. The moment the meaning appeared, I’d hear the click. The photo was taken.
Young Joel, who knew nothing about photography at the time, saw in this art form a way of transforming the ordinary moments of everyday life into special moments, born and disappearing in a thousandth of a second. “When I left that shoot and stepped out into the street, everything seemed full of potential. As if there were hidden meanings in ordinary life, provided you saw them and were in the right place at the right time. That’s when I realized that photography was my calling.
Gone were the days of Joel Meyerowitz and his large abstract canvases. He gave up his art history studies, quit his job and borrowed a camera. When the salesman in the photo store a stone’s throw from his office asked if he wanted color or black & white film, he immediately replied: “Color”.
Color at all costs
In the 1960s, color was absent from museums. Considered commercial, it was reserved for fashion and advertising. It was used to record family celebrations and vacations. Black and white was true photography. Yet for Meyerowitz, the world was in color and should be photographed as such.
Wherever he went, he’d always be accompanied by a dozen rolls of film and two different cameras, photographing the same scene in black and white and in color. The result is A Question of Color, a project in which he juxtaposes the same image, one in monochrome, the other in color. It’s the same people, the same activity, the same place – in short, the same photographs, with one difference: “In black and white, you’d never know that this girl is wearing a red bathing suit, or that the dog is white when she’s black. Color is a mine of information.”
To justify his choice, Meyerowitz often returns to this photo of a man by a fountain in the Parc du Luxembourg, in Paris. “It’s a spring day, he’s under a beautiful arch with green chairs and it looks like he’s giving a lecture.” In color, one can notice a little bright red detail: the strawberries. This little “ping” of red, as Meyerowitz cheerfully calls it, gives the scene a whole new twist. The man washes his strawberries in the fountain. In black and white, one doesn’t even notice them.
Then, pointing to another photo, Meyerowitz says: “Look at these two beautiful young women. In black and white, you think they’re wearing white dresses and you can’t tell the difference between them. Then you look at them in color, and the dresses are yellow and pink. Their lips are like fruit. They’re alive, they’re present, they’re with us. This impression is so much stronger. I feel human warmth.
A young man’s journey into the magic of the world
Meyerowitz began photographing at the age of 24. An age when you’re looking for meaning in everything you see. “Your relationships with people, the culture you live in, all these things imprint themselves on you, so with a sense of being you at a moment in history.” Behind his photos, a young man’s journey into the magic of the world is written. “So today I’m at a point where I wonder who I am at 85. What do I really know, see or feel now?”
Meyerowitz’s photographic, and that’s probably why it’s so good. Each photo revives a buried memory, his eyes sparkle and he’s suddenly the young man he used to be. When he talks about the 1960s, it’s with a touch of nostalgia. His photos bear witness to this: it was a time of true innocence. After the war and the financial crisis came a period of peace and prosperity. People loved to dress up. Even construction workers wore suits. In the streets, people wore Fedora hats or long gloves. Elegance became very ordinary, almost familiar.
“I’m 85 now. I’ve been in this business for 60 years. Meyerowitz has learned many lessons over the years. One in particular: things tend to repeat themselves. “People, human beings, do the same things in every generation. They just dress differently, or the moral codes are different, but human behavior remains the same.”
Second lesson: Meyerowitz has “learned to be invisible”. It has to be said that he is a master in the art of handling his camera. A million times, he has brought it close to his eye to freeze that fleeting moment when everything lends itself to creating the sublime. By dint of his skill, he knows by heart the dimensions of the space in which he moves. In a fraction of a second, the photo is taken, and life goes on, as if nothing had happened.
An undertaking that today proves more complicated. The age of the smartphone, and the ability to photograph people with it, has made us more aware of the need to protect some form of identity. “Back then, no one imagined that someone would take a photo of them. Often, if I raised the camera to people, they would look behind them. They didn’t think it was them I was interested in.”
As with many young photographers, Henri-Cartier Bresson was his guide for a long time. And with him, the revolution of the decisive moment, which makes photography the ultimate art of capturing things that are already disappearing. “When I’m on the street, I’m not looking to take a photo. I look at the world to appreciate all the madness that modern life produces. Often, they’re doing two or three things at once. They’re on the phone, hailing a cab, carrying their luggage, walking their dog…”.
Joel Meyerowitz has developed a gift for pausing this frenetic pace. Like the omniscient narrator of a novel, he slows down the scene, analyzes the surrounding space and captures that famous decisive moment. He calls it an “incident”: something at the origin of the triggering gesture, the key moment in a story. This talent comes from years of practice, but also from his drawing studies. In his class, he was frequently confronted with models. “I could see when a pose was just a pose, and when it became ecstasy or beauty, something more than what it was. So I tried to transform the gesture, whatever it was, into something that had a sense of beauty.”
For him, photography is simply a tool for remembering these moments of transformation. Those moments when everything falls into place, lasting only a fraction of a second.
A life driven by art
Over the years, Meyerowitz moved away from this “snapshot” towards the totality. Simply looking at the visual noise, he forgets the incident to better capture the totality of the scene. It’s all in the composition of the image. “This background, these buildings, these stairs, with the shadows and the sunlight: it’s all there. Nothing happens. There’s no story.”
Finally, Meyerowitz is not just a photographer, he is a man driven by the profound impulse of art. He has always felt it. He has always vibrated to it. Painting was just a way into photography. And it is with this art that Meyerowitz expresses himself best. Because in painting, there’s no interaction with the world. We interact with a flat space. Color, pure color. “When you paint, you’re responsible for everything on the canvas. It’s a void that you fill. You can put everything on that surface, everything that’s going on in your head. Does it have to remain empty?” Photography doesn’t fill the void, it captures the moment and sublimates it. The sun’s reflection on red hair, a sky-blue umbrella, a mustard-yellow storefront… Life is a theater, and color is its language.
Joel Meyerowitz : A Question of Color, avec des textes de Joel Meyerowitz & Robert Shore, publié par Thames & Hudson, 28€.
An exhibition of some of the works in the book will be on show at Tate Modern, London, from November 20, 2023 to November 3, 2024.