That Joel Meyerowitz, one of the pioneers of colour photography in the United States, became a photographer at all is an accident of history. After graduating in Art and Art History from Ohio State University, he went to work at a small advertising agency in New York. One fateful day, his boss told him to go watch a photographer work. Meyerowitz went out and watched the man photographing two girls as they played dress-ups after school. He simply moved around them with his Leica and went click, click, click. Meyerowitz had never seen anything like it before and, as he looked over the photographer’s shoulder, he saw what the photographer saw. It all suddenly made sense to him. “Watching him work changed my life,” he says. The year was 1962, and the photographer was Robert Frank. Meyerowitz went back to his office, borrowed a camera from his boss, announced he was quitting to become a photographer, and hit the streets of New York.

What happened next is also little short of amazing. In short succession he ran into Tony Ray Jones while shooting on the street and struck up a friendship as they learned how to photograph by working the parades up on Fifth Avenue in the middle ’50s and discussing the results of their slides in the evenings. Then he met Garry Winogrand in the subway who took him under his wing. Meyerowitz developed his photographic skills and shooting style under their interaction and by reading three key books, Frank’s Les Americains, Cartier-Bresson’s The Decisive Moment, and Walker Evans’s American Photographs. It was, as he puts it, “a thunderbolt kind of start”.

In contrast to Winogrand, Meyerowitz began shooting colour slides and only later shot black and white. He affected a centre-weighted photographic style that at first played on the felicities of the decisive moments that occur on Fifth Avenue. “There was a kind of simplicity of the frame and a wonderful human activity in it that was joyous and touching or tragic and ironic in some way. It communicated something … I could do it. My timing was good, I was getting better at it, and I could see these things coming. It became too easy,” he notes in retrospect. Meyerowitz decided to take a step back and literally turn away from the subject matter. He put things out of kilter and made what he calls “non-hierarchical pictures” that have no centre.

They represent an energy that derives from the power of colour itself and of the energy of the street. Two key images in the show at Thomas Zander Galerie in Cologne point to this transformation, the one of the fallen man in Paris and the one of the woman with the golden building in the background. Here he “gave up on the fallen man, incident picture, and moved towards an open-ended field picture in which there was no incident”.

Meyerowitz was frustrated, though, by the limitations of trying to print from colour slides because of the loss of detail through the necessity of using internegatives. In contrast to dye-transfers, prints from 35mm slides did not satisfy him. From his experience as a graphic designer he was aware of dye-transfers, but they were prohibitively expensive at the time. He opted for the solution of using a bigger camera, eventually settling on an 8 x 10, to get the print quality he wanted. In 1976 he took the camera to Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and learned how to use it and how to make it work for him. Thus was born the Cape Light series of portraits and land and sea-scapes that play on the grainlessness of the big picture and the very texture of the light and colour itself. It was this work that brought him fame and inclusion in the seminal 1981 book by Sally Eauclaire, The New Color Photography, with Stephen Shore, William Eggleston, Joel Sternfeld, Helen Levitt, and Jan Groover, among others. The show at Zander traces his trajectory from 35mm to 8 x 10 and from the streets of New York to the streets of Provincetown. It is a fascinating transformation born seemingly by accident and his constant questioning of his approach to the possibilities inherent in the medium.

Lastly, Meyerowitz was the only photographer permitted onto the site of the remains of the World Trade Center in New York, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 9/11. His 8 x 10 images of the site, the workers, and the environment with the attention to light and colour that are his tropes, is an awe-inspiring document and memorial to the fallen and to those who are working to reclaim the space for New York. 

Bill Kouwenhoven

A book entitled Joel Meyerowitz will be published by Phaidon in April 2005.