For more than half a century, legendary photographer Joel Meyerowitz has found inspiration in the streets. In public spaces, where most passersby would likely never offer a second glance, Meyerowitz has created a lifetime of work through his sharp eye and quick wit. At 82 years old, the artist is as productive as ever.
In a new book called How I Make Photographs, Meyerowitz reveals the secrets to his prolific career as a street photographer by outlining the tips and tricks that have kept him inspired and productive along the way. The book shares insight into some of Meyerowitz's most iconic photographs from throughout his career and is a true love letter to photography.
Here, Meyerowitz speaks with BuzzFeed News about how his career began and shares some advice for staying inspired and creative while social distancing.
Can you tell us a bit about how you first got into photography and where that took you?
I was actually an abstract painter in New York City while in graduate school. I had a job doing graphic design at a small company and my boss sent me out to watch a photographer shoot the pictures for this booklet we were working on. The photographer ended up being the legendary Robert Frank. Photography was something I didn’t care or know anything about — as far as I knew, photography was about fashion and advertising. But as I watched Robert Frank work, something clicked for me and I thought to myself, Oh my god.
When I left that shoot and went out on the street, the world was suddenly so alive with possibilities that had once seemed invisible to me, suddenly there seemed to be meaning. When I got back to my office that afternoon, I quit my job. So for me, the genesis was an instantaneous recognition that photography might be able to stop moments that were really invisible.
From there I went out on the street and began shooting. I didn't know any better, so I put color film in the camera and I shot in color. Black-and-white photography was the standard back then, so when I began showing my pictures to friends, everybody would tell me that my pictures should be black and white if people were to take me seriously. I thought to myself, But the world’s in color! Why should I be shooting black and white? I really couldn’t understand this.
I tried to find books on the subject too, but quickly realized that there weren’t many out there. Not like today, where there’s a photo book a minute — in those days, there was really nothing to look at. I eventually discovered three books that became my education: Robert Frank’s The Americans, Henri Cartier Bresson’s The Decisive Moment, and Walker Evans’ American Photographs. Some people read mystery novels and they grow to become mystery writers, while some people read poetry and discover their skill to become poets. It’s the literature you read that guides you to the truth, and these three books showed me what photography is supposed to be. I remember when I first saw Robert Frank’s book, it just overwhelmed me as being a dark, poetic vision of America. I hoped that someday I could also make a photography book like that.
Can you tell us about your new book How I Make Photographs? What made you want to write a how-to book?
That’s a really good question and one that I had to work through with myself before beginning the book. I was thinking about what it was like for me to first see Robert Frank’s book. Frankly, I wrote this book for the new generation of photographers, what I like to call the smartphone generation.
There are a billion people on the planet carrying around a phone every day and they’re making all kinds of pictures. Most of these pictures are center weighted and familiar-looking pictures, but every once in a while someone is caught off guard by taking a picture that has incredible characteristics and qualities. They may look at it themselves and say, “Wow, I did that? I would like to improve my game.” It’s for those people that I wanted to make this book. This book is like a giveaway of everything I know. I don't have any secrets to hold on to. I feel that this is what you have to do as an artist — give away everything you learned and allow people to make something out of it on their own.
Many photographers are now stuck indoors due to the pandemic. How can a person maintain their creativity while working in the same surroundings every day and with little or no human interactions?
I spent two months in lockdown while I was in London. Every day we were allowed to go out for a walk or exercise for an hour, which forced me to be creative about making pictures inside. When you’re in the same space day after day, you have to open your eyes to what’s there in space.
Because my wife is a writer and I’m a photographer, we posted a challenge on our Instagram feed asking for our followers to send us their photographs made inside or even an essay or story on the theme of being inside. We decided that if we can find 25 writers or photographers, then we’d publish the work in a book. At this point, we must have 1,900 photographs!
People rose to the challenge in remarkably creative ways. Some of the suggestions we offer is to observe the light in your room or apartment and witness what the light does over the course of a day. What about the actual structure of your interior? What do the walls look like? How do they meet the floor? What do the furnishings look like? Look at things as if you never saw them before, as if you’re a martian landing on a mysterious planet in the state of wonder.
Throughout your long career, what has kept you motivated from decade to decade?
I think every artist, if they’re really serious about their medium, comes to a point where they reach some kind of limit — when you ask yourself, “Is this all there is?” It’s easy to flat-line at this point and choose to stay on a plateau, and there are artists that can manage to do that, even peers of mine who from my perspective haven’t developed.
For me, maybe because I came from an art history background, I kept asking questions of photography — like what other ideas can a photograph encapsulate? I’ve always thought about photography as being about ideas. Yes, a photograph can look like a picture, but really in it is the organic power of an idea about something, whether it’s about space, light, time, or the interrelationships between disconnected things. A 35mm picture is just a rectangle and everybody has the same space to work with, but what you can invent and come up with within that space is how you develop.
I’ll give you an example — I was in London celebrating New Year's Eve this year, and on New Year’s Day I woke up and thought to myself, What kind of challenge could this year bring? Of course, who knew it was going to be a pandemic, but at that moment I challenged myself to begin making self-portraits. I'm 82 years old, and this is something I haven't really done before. As of today, I have made over 800 self-portraits.
In your experience, what is it that makes a good photograph?
There are so many ways of slicing that question, but I think what we’ve seen from the history of photography is that a good photograph often reveals something of the photographer’s interiority. You learn something about the photographer's wit, their timing, or their vision — how they were able to seize the unexpected moment and make something substantial out of it like meaning, poetry, beauty, or tragedy.
A lot of photographs start in the middle. People tend to use a bull's-eye approach when making pictures, particularly amateurs who don’t have a lot of experience. They want to hit the target. But as their eye becomes more sophisticated, they begin to see that the picture frame itself is this beautiful powerhouse that can be filled with information. If a picture can transcend all of the stuff in it, so that the photographer disappears and the photographer’s effort and tricks fade away, then people can enter the picture and enjoy the experience of an interesting photograph. I don’t know about what makes a picture good or bad, but for me the first entry into a picture is the thought, Oh, this is interesting. Just like life, in a way.