Photographer Joel Meyerowitz Shares Sage Advice for Aspiring Artists
Joel Meyerowitz, Self-Portrait, 1971. © Joel Meyerowitz. Courtesy of the artist and Laurence King Publishing.
Joel Meyerowitz decided that 2020 would be a year of self-reflection. On January 1st, the 82-year-old photography giant began a self-portrait series as a means of personal discovery. Known for his exuberant, color street photography, he also wanted to challenge himself to learn about a new form. Coping with the global pandemic has only forced Meyerowitz to turn evermore inward—while still finding ways to connect with aspiring photographers.
A Bronx native currently living between Italy and London with his wife, Maggie, Meyerowitz is constantly sharing his knowledge about his craft. His new book, Joel Meyerowtiz: How I Make Photographs (which is currently available in the U.S. and goes on sale in the U.K. on September 3rd), is a testament to this generous outlook. The volume—the first in a new photo book series from Laurence King called “Masters of Photography”—features 20 mini lessons that highlight Meyerowitz’s unique approach to crafting compelling images. Readers learn how to find their artistic identities, own the street, be at one with the camera, and more. Meyerowitz’s unique voice shines through his reflections and encouragement. “I don’t keep anything a secret. I think photographers, all artists, should just give it away,” he explained. “Because no one will ever do what you do, you’re you!”
An early practitioner of color photography, Meyerowitz helped transform attitudes around the medium in the 1960s—at the time, color was deemed useful only for amateurs. Throughout his career of more than five decades, he has published dozens of successful photo books and has appeared in over 350 exhibitions across the globe. He has traveled the world, taking captivating photographs in his energetic style.
Meyerowitz has an uncanny ability to capture the concurrent beauty and messiness of life. His subjects have ranged from summertime streets in New York City whirling with commotion, to dreamy landscapes of lazy beach towns, to staged still lifes of found objects. His first photo book, Cape Light (1978), is deemed a classic work of color photography, and marks the beginning of his lasting exploration of the art form. “There are ways that photography tells its mystery, and I’ve spent a lifetime trying to understand more about it,” Meyerowitz said.
Portrait of Joel Meyerowitz. © Masters of Photography. Courtesy of Masters of Photography and Laurence King Publishing.
Meyerowitz’s oeuvre is filled with images that engage deeply with the world and life around him. Throughout How I Make Photographs, Meyerowitz explains how he generated his most iconic images. He notes that by being open to humor, photographers can show the “absurdities of ordinary life.” Meyerowitz also emphasizes the magic that can happen when you embrace the beauty in the mundane. His photographs highlight his unique ability to be present and form a meaningful connection with nearly everyone who crosses his path.
Though much of his work centers on the richness of everyday life, Meyerowitz is no stranger to making images during times of crisis. In 2001, he was the sole photographer to gain unrestricted access to document the remains of the World Trade Center following the attacks on September 11th. Meyerowitz met plenty of pushback from government officials, but ultimately felt his duty as a New Yorker was to capture this moment in history.
Joel Meyerowitz, Five more found, New York City, 2001. © Joel Meyerowitz. Courtesy of the artist and Laurence King Publishing.
Just a few days after the tragedy, Meyerowitz found his way to the scene with his camera. Standing just outside the fenced-off section, he raised it to see if there was anything he might capture, but was met with a blow to the back from a police officer. She explained that the area was classified as a crime scene, and no one was to document it. Meyerowitz was undaunted, believing that such a historical moment deserved to be archived for the public. “I thought to myself, ‘We need a record!’ I had a lightbulb moment,” he recalled. Meyerowitz took photographs there everyday for nine months and described it as one of the most powerful experiences of his life. The culminating 2006 photo book, Aftermath: The World Trade Center Archive, is one of the only comprehensive photographic archives of Ground Zero after the attacks.
Now, we’re facing a very different tragedy, which has heightened many of the uncertainties in our world. It can be difficult to think of what’s ahead when so many aspects of our daily lives are changing. Meyerowitz shared a promising message to those looking to document our ever-evolving world: “You don’t have to be an artist, you can be any person with a camera and a question. If you have an impulse, a stray thought that just comes through your mind that triggers a moment of reflection, follow that,” he explained enthusiastically. “Don’t try to intellectualize and think, ‘Oh, I should do this, or I should do that.’ Do the thing that comes like a fragrance.”
Meyerowitz and his wife have recently launched a platform, Inside Stories, which encourages writers and photographers to submit work that chronicles their experience during lockdown. The project intends to facilitate reflection on how we’re coping with our new reality. Over the course of several weeks, the couple will select five short stories or essays and five photographs, and will work virtually with each of the contributors to edit their work. A panel of judges will then select 25 stories or essays and 25 photographs to be published in a book, titled INSIDE STORIES: Life In The Pandemic.
Though How I Make Photographs was dreamt up long before any news of a global pandemic, it lends an especially important message in our current moment. As Meyerowitz described his thoughts on the essence of photography, I couldn’t help but reflect on his words as an analogy for life. The short lessons throughout the book provide photographers—and, really, all of us—with the tools to become familiar with our surroundings, to connect with those around us, and how to show up for each other.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the nature of Meyerowitz’s time spent photographing the World Trade Center. Mayor Giuliani did not allow photographers of any kind access to the grounds.