No. 83 - From our archives - "Joel Meyerowitz - Photographer."

October 16th, 2019

Last September I came across one of the finest documentaries I've ever seen, and certainly, the best documentary on photography that I can think of: Joel Meyerowitz - Photographer.

Curlew Daily was once Curlew Weekly, and for our weekly, I wrote the piece below.

All of my best,

Isaac Myers III

One man stands on the corner of Fifth Avenue and East Fifty-eighth Street with a camera in his hands. It's the photographer, Joel Meyerowitz. It's 1981, and the sun is out, and by the way the pedestrian traffic flows up and down and over and across the sidewalk around Meyerowitz, you'd guess that it's a weekday and around lunch time. And if you listen closely enough, you can hear a woman speak. "Someone just took a picture of you."

The Empire State Building is in the background, then closer, in the foreground, taxis move south down Fifth Avenue, and a hot dog stand with a yellow and red umbrella attracts the attention of a man in a white polo shirt and white knee-length shorts. This is what takes place throughout the opening credits of Robert Gilberg's 1981 documentary, Joel Meyerowitz ––– Photographer.

The credits run for just over one minute, then right around the one minute and thirty second mark, the film's interviewer, Colin L. Westerbeck Jr., walks into the shot and shakes Meyerowitz’s hand. "How are you doing? Sorry I'm a little late. I'm all wired up." Meyerowitz doesn't mind. He calls it a terrific day, and Westerbeck Jr. calls it a gorgeous day. Then over the next fifty-six minutes, Westerbeck Jr. follows Meyerowitz lead as Meyerowitz follows his own impulses.

Gilberg's film works because it's a documentary in motion. It doesn't stop in the same way that the city doesn't stop. As I was looking for other photography documentaries or films to write about, I couldn't find one that moved just like this. Often the photographer was behind a lectern, with slides behind him, describing his process, and the journey of each photo. Or in some cases the interviewer would be seated across from the photographer with a small table (holding a pitcher of water and a bouquet of flowers) in between them. I couldn't sink into those films., but this one, I could.

One thing that the film makes clear is that by 1981 Meyerowitz has been taking pictures for a long while. Meyerowitz plays the sage, and Westerbeck Jr. owns his role as the curious onlooker, watching the sage at work.

Later in the film, when Meyerowitz is choosing which photographs to use, and how to arrange them for an upcoming exhibit of his work in Chicago, he describes the feeling of looking back on his career. "Looking at twenty years of your own work, you've got to come to terms with what it was that you did, and who you were, and where you failed, and where you survived, and where your energies are."

At that point in his career, Meyerowitz's had often spent his energies walking the streets of Manhattan, and particularly, throughout the first half of Gilberg's documentary, Fifth Avenue, just below Central Park South.

The film walks a fine line between Meyerowitz’s interesting and truthful statements in response to Westerbeck’s Jr.’s questions about what it means to be a street photographer, and how one can actually go about pursuing and improving upon the craft, versus over-romanticizing the process, and as a result, producing and delivering fluff. Fluff: “As a street photographer you have to have hutzpah.” Truth: “If you don’t come out on the street day after day, you’re not going to get it. You can’t just pay a visit, as though street photography were a field trip ––– as though you were going to Yellowstone for a day.”

As the two men are standing along Fifth Avenue near Central Park South, a semi-truck with a trailer bed that’s equipped with large and empty metal poles begins moving down Fifth Avenue. Moments before Westerbeck Jr. had asked Meyerowitz how he knows when and where to stop, stand, take up his position, and start taking pictures.

“Like everything else it’s when you feel good. You walk along the street, and you’re very nonchalant about the whole thing –––– I have no place to go, I’m out for a walk, with you, right? –––– and you come to a place . . . where there’s a big brood of a guy digging a trench on Fifth Avenue, and a few trees popping out of a concrete square, and then there’s the Empire State Building, and a plaza over there, and it feels as though all of the points are radiating some type of energy, and the focus is right where you’re standing, and in that moment it feels good there. And maybe you walk ten or fifteen feet and the whole thing goes slack, and you don’t take a picture. And so when it feels good, you stay there, you wait for the feeling to either become more intense, or to evaporate. It’s testing the elasticity of your feelings. I mean look at this truck right here! Where’s the missile this truck is supposed to be carrying? And then all of a sudden some girl comes by eating french fries, just right here, and she’s rubbing her hair for a second. It’s the look of sunlight on hair.”

In between shots of Meyerowitz and Westerbeck Jr. moving (or standing still) along Fifth Avenue appear slides of stills of Meyerowitz’s work. Occasionally, as scenes change from the streets of Manhattan to inside Meyerowitz’s studio, no music or sounds from the city play in the background. These moments work, as you get to view the photographs in silence, in the same way that you would if you were walking through a gallery of his work.

Briefly Westerbeck Jr. moves through Meyerowitz’s influences, which serves as an abridged history of American street photography. Henri Cartier-Bresson’s The Decisive Moment; Robert Frank’s Les Americans; and Walker Evan’s American Photographs all make passing appearances.

Throughout, the film shows stills from Meyerowitz’s work in St. Louis, Missouri (St. Louis and the Arch (1977)) as well as Cape Cod, Massachusetts (Cape Light (1979)). Then through much of the film’s final fourth, Westerbeck Jr. examines what pushed Meyerowitz toward setting aside his thirty-five millimeter handheld camera, and picking up a much heavier and far less portable view-finder. Whereas the thirty-five millimeter handheld invites and allows for improvisation, and lends itself to the impulsive heart, mind, and eye; the viewfinder demands preparation, intention, and premeditation.

The film closes with Westerbeck Jr. following Meyerowitz around Manhattan once more. Except this time it’s dusk, and Meyerowitz is moving about the city with a large view-finder camera that’s connected to a tripod, both of which are slung over his right shoulder. Eventually he finds a spot that feels right, and a building that he’d like to shoot, then sets up the camera accordingly. Westerbeck Jr. has recently offered and Meyerowitz has agreed that when you go out shooting in the middle of the day, the light is an aspect of the process, but when you go out and shoot at dusk, the light is the subject, and the star.

Perhaps thirty-six hours before, shortly after Westerbeck Jr. had first shook Meyerowitz’s hand for the purpose of introducing himself, and creating Gilberg’s film, Meyerowitz had offered a similar thought, regarding the stars, subjects, and audiences for a street photographer. “The camera is the stage, and the events come in from the wings, and I try to capture all of it. Look at that! Look at that! The tumult of the street is what New York City looks like in 1981 ––– look at that!”

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