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Any Answers: Joel Meyerowitz

Joel Meyerowitz portrait © Michael Grieve

In 1962, Joel Meyerowitz quit his job in advertising after seeing Robert Frank at work. A native New Yorker, he became known for his early colour work on the city streets

I once had a farm, and I needed to find a water source. I met with a diviner and after walking around with his forked stick, it eventually vibrated and he discovered water. When I asked how he did it, he said it was all about the energy and feeling good. In a way, the camera is like a divining rod and I have lived my life letting instinct show me what I am interested in.

My parents were fairly uneducated, from immigrant families. But they opened up the world to me. My mother loved to read and she made stories interesting with her vocal expression. That ignited my imagination.

Whenever I was with my father he would say, “Look at that,” “Watch this,” and something would always happen. He was always on alert and could read the temper of the street. It was a great foundation for me to really look and observe reality.

He grew up in the Depression and was a real tough New York Jewish street guy. He was a welterweight boxing champion and won the first Golden Gloves competition. He worked as a truck driver and a delivery guy carrying heavy barrels of cleaning fluids. He was also a hoofer, making music with his feet on Vaudeville, and he always had natural comic timing.

The first photograph that had an impact on me was by André Kertész. It was a turning point for me to realise that you could have obscurity and clarity at the same time.

Someone should do a movie about Henri Cartier-Bresson. When he was younger he had the looks of James Dean and Marlon Brando. He had the authority and the self-knowledge to do whatever he wanted, and he used this as a tool. He was a class act.

One photograph from The Decisive Moment stays with me. It’s a visual response to almost nothing. There’s no drama, just the void of shadow and light on an empty street between two children, emanating something vague and ambiguous and yet profound.

Tony Ray-Jones and I saw him working. He was moving like a ballet dancer, taking pictures at a street parade in New York. He was smart, confident and elegantly dressed, with a thin leather strap wrapped around his wrist, while we were shaggy kids with beards and long hair holding our Pentax SLRs with thick, cumbersome straps around our necks.

He was moving close to people but they didn’t know he was photographing them. Then a drunken Irish guy came out of the crowd and went towards Cartier-Bresson, who immediately thrust his camera at him. Surprised, the man fell back into a group of friends and Cartier-Bresson disappeared. I’ve held my camera the same way as the Maestro ever since!

Tony and I were an incredible duet, playing off each other. We spent every day together for the first year of our working lives as photographers. We’d been graphic designers and were stuck in that frame of reference. We struggled to break free and find our own vocabulary.

Robert Frank’s The Americans taught me so much. It is a great dark poem about America, seen by an outsider who came in and swam through with a sense of the wonder and the pain.

Atget understood that the compression of layers onto a flat surface is photography.

Showing but disguising gives depth to flatness. I didn’t get the stillness of approach at first.

For the past three years I have been living in Tuscany with my wife. And it has been three years of another day. I wanted to live my life on my wife’s agenda rather than my own.

Having been a New Yorker for 75 years, I’m shocked I don’t miss it. I thought I would live and die there. I had this fantasy that when I was old and decrepit I would be wheeled out in my wheelchair on to 57th and 5th Avenue and I’d just sit there and photograph everything.

I sold my archive to a billionaire. The real significance of this is to make prints. Printing in this age of looking at images virtually will be valuable in the future, as it is making history.

While working on St Louis and the Arch, I listened to Schubert’s Quintet in C. I tried to replicate the structure of a classical composition. Later, a lady wrote to say that every time she looked at it, she could hear music. Sometimes it can just be an audience of one.

joelmeyerowitz.com This article was first published in the September issue of the BJP www.thebjpshop.com