Joel Meyerowitz is still hungry. For more than half a century, his sprawling photographs of the streets of NewYork City, quaint life in Cape Cod, and an America we don’t recognise anymore have secured his reputation as one of the most influential photographers of our time. His newly released monograph, Where I Find Myself: A Lifetime Retrospective, has all the hits: New York City, Ground Zero, and America by car, while including interim works like his photographs of pools by the sea and flamenco musicians in Spain. What’s delightful about his images is that they exist without shtick; you know a Meyerowitz photograph from its sensibility, not from a crutch he’s leaning on. Organised in reverse chronological order, the book gets noisier with each turn of the page, from formally strict, refined still lifes to clamorous, stylistically loose street photographs. He’s the conductor leading you to the crescendo. Meyerowitz’s writing, which acts a companion throughout, allows us into the seams of his career. How wonderful it is to see a mind moving, like someone slowly steadying the rudder of a boat. Freshly eighty years of age, picture-making continues to be a game of cat and mouse for Meyerowitz – he pokes and prods with hopes of being whacked in the face. He speaks about photography like a great love affair; a marriage so intimate that it’s impossible to decipher who’s influencing whom. And it’s apparent that Meyerowitz’s great gift is allowing himself to be an open wound to the world, as though he’s tuned into another channel with three fewer layers of skin. He’s present.
Joel Meyerowitz: Hi Caroline, it’s Joel Meyerowitz calling. Caroline Tompkins: Hi Joel, how’s it going?
CT: Do you live in Tuscany full time?
JM:Yes, I live here year-round, which is shocking to me, since I was born in New York, and I lived seventy-five of my years there, but now I’m living here and I just love it. My work has changed. My life feels great.There’s no stress or anxiety or traffic or noise or helicopters – all the usual formal complaints.Are you in NewYork?
CT: I am. I live in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
JM: Do you write about photography mostly or are you covering all the arts? What’s your interest?
CT: I’m mostly a photographer to be honest. I write about photography intermittently. I wanted to preface that many of my questions will stem from the perspective of a photographer, and being interested in your experience.
JM:What kind of photography do you do?
CT: Ummm...Do you know how to answer that question?
CT: I mostly shoot portraiture.We can start there. I’m usually hired to shoot portraiture, but I think my work comes from whatever I’m interested in at that time.
JM: Good, I feel the same, and you’re lucky that you’re getting hired to make photographs. It’s just an incredible position to be in – that people are actually wanting you to make work for them.That’s great.
CT: It is great.Thanks. My friends and I think about this a lot – how do we sustain it?
JM: It’s the hardest thing for photographers. It’s such an incredibly democratic universe, a very competitive world, and to make your way in it, to get the attention of editors or advertising people or book publishers is really hard. I have to say it was much harder when I started because there was no photography world. No one gave a shit about it. Museums barely showed it. Publishers didn’t abound like they do today. Really, nobody wanted to publish a photography book because they knew that the audience for photography books was about 2,500 people worldwide, so what profit was there in making a book? It was more expensive to print a photobook because it was not solely text: it’s pictures, it’s screening, it’s separations.You had to truly love the medium and your friends, so you could at least be in the mix conversing about this incredibly magical medium.You didn’t have any hope that you were ever going to make a living from it, and so all of us would work commercially. Everybody worked commercially if they could.
CT: Commercially how?
JM: Winogrand, Frank, Friedlander and Arbus all did magazine or advertising work.When I started – and I was ten years younger than most of them – they became my first real friends in photography. I worked commercially too for many years but I only did advertising work to support myself. I didn’t do it regularly. If I was lucky, only six to eight weeks a year, if you were to put together three days here and two days there.That was enough to sustain myself as an artist. I could pay my bills and raise my family and have enough time to make pictures on the street and take little trips here and there. Garry [Winogrand] was a commercial photographer shooting things for ad agencies. Lee Friedlander shot record covers by the dozens or the hundreds. Robert Frank shot commercials and advertising.
CT: You so rarely hear about this. That’s the landscape of contemporary photography – shooting enough paid work to make your own. In hindsight, you see the work made by those photographers in compressed time.
JM:That’s the false impression of history.You see a lot of work and you think that’s all that they did. No one asks how they supported themselves. I mean some people didn’t have to.They were rich – like Bill Eggleston was a rich kid, you know? He didn’t have to. There were others like him with family money who could support their hobby or whatever they wanted to call it.The rest of us who were poor schmucks from the neighbourhood had to figure a way to stay alive, without demeaning the work and photography itself. There were a lot of photographers, between my and Garry’s age, which is a ten-year spread, who were doing commercial work and started loving it because they made money and then they forgot about photography.They just used it as a way of making a living, and they made millions of dollars in advertising, over time of course, but then they never made another serious photograph in their life. I remember a bunch of them at different times in my life coming to me and saying: “Hey Joel, how come you get exhibitions and museum shows and you do books and everything, and I can’t get anybody to be interested in my work?” and to be brutally honest, I would say, “Well, you sold out.” What else you gonna call it? You decided that advertising and birds in reflecting pools were your life’s work, that’s what you get for it.You get calendars.
CT:What does your community look like now? Reading about you and your work paints your contemporaries as these pillars of photography. How does that change over time?
JM: I feel extraordinarily fortunate to have had mostly young photographers in my life. I’m in regular communication – not necessarily daily but weekly/monthly/bi-monthly – with young photographers here in Italy, in Europe, London, Paris, NewYork and around the US. People I’ve met through either their curiosity in communicating with me, or who studied with me or assisted in a workshop or worked in my studio for me, and these people have become the next generation of photographers. I feel so close to them.We share work.We have conversations. Most of my generation have died off early. Diane committed suicide. Garry died too young from cancer.Tony Ray-Jones was my first partner and buddy, and he died a long, long time ago. Saul Leiter died a couple of years ago. He was old, much older than me, and we weren’t really close friends, but we knew each other’s work for a long time.A lot of people just seem to fall by the wayside. Lee Friedlander is alive and working, and I think he’s one of the great legends of photography. I really do feel fortunate that I have people around me who are still engaged and with whom photography is hot.They are making their lives with it and it’s still a vital inquiry for them. I’m grateful that they even want to talk to an older photographer like myself and say, “Hey, what do you think of this work?”, and I ask them what they think of mine too. Don’t think I sit back.There’s always a question.
CT:When did you realise you were a legend?
JM: What a crazy question to ask. I’ll tell you, though, maybe two years ago I went to Paris Photo because my dealer had a show there – not mine, but there were some pictures of mine – and I went to sign some books. I was walking through the Grand Palais, and I couldn’t take a step. People were jumping in front of me to take my photograph. People were walking alongside and holding my arm to talk to me. If I stood still for a second to talk to someone, there was a circle of twenty photographers around. I thought, what the fuck is going on here? I’m living on a sheep farm in Tuscany. I have to go into town to even see people. So, suddenly to be walking through and to be a rock star, that’s how it felt. I thought, wait a second, I never lived like that. I’m a relatively solitary person with a quiet life. I do my work. I keep my head down. I just do it. Suddenly there was this play to one’s vanity. I was shocked by it. Fortunately, I was wearing a hat, so I pulled my hat down over my eyes, and I went through Paris Photo with my head down, because really I’m not used to that kind of attention. I really understood how the people who are actually stars in our world today, musicians and actors, are getting this shit all the time! It must be horrible to not be able to have a private life. I’m fortunate to be able to have a private life, but I have experienced what you call ‘legend’ now. It’s sorta fun, but then again it absorbs too much energy.Anyways,that’s the first time anyone’s ever asked me that question, so you’re on record as the one who spoiled it for me [laughs].
CT: [laughing] I’m honoured.
JM: I can’t deny that it’s happening, but that doesn’t mean I’m not surprised. I think when photography was just a medium, and one where you had to buy a camera, which means you had to make an investment, you had to learn how to use it. Photography was still a small world. Ever since the smartphone, there’s a billion people on the planet who make photographs every day.A worldwide curiosity arrives about who else is making pictures, and some names keep rising. So, if you’re interested in street photography, my name is bound to appear sooner or later. I think that’s what produces what used to be called the cult of personality.The affliction that well- known people had. How much you play with the cult of personality that comes your way tells you about the person. Here I am living off the grid basically, so that I can just enjoy life and make work.Who knows how much time I have left? I just turned eighty ten days ago.
CT: I meant to start this by saying Happy Birthday.
JM:Thank you. I don’t even know what eighty feels like. I feel good physically. I feel good mentally. I’m having fun. Life is vital and full of surprises. I don’t feel like I’m in retreat. I want to know in these last years what it’s like to be as intimate as possible with Maggie. The woman I’m married to and love.We’ve made this experiment to be as intimate as we can possibly be.To know another human as profoundly as you can. She’s a writer and an artist.To go as far into our work as we can in a place that doesn’t have other pressures.You know what it’s like living in NewYork.You’re in the buzz all the time, and there’s a lot of anxiety and stress and demands and all that stuff. I think we just wanted to step back a little bit and take a long look at whatever time is left. Oddly, by moving away from America, I’ve been receiving more requests for exhibitions and books than ever in my life before? How the fuck did that happen? I moved to get away.That’s all very enjoyable. I’ll be honest with you. Having an opportunity to bring out work that was hidden away for a long time, even with this retrospective book, which I really like. I think the book is very handsome and it’s playful. I didn’t try to put in my best pictures, I tried to put in things that showed me the way.
CT: As a photographer, when I’m going through a retrospective, I think,‘What room am I in?What wall text am I writing?’
JM: How old are you? CT: I’m twenty-five.
JM: Oh, you’re in the first room. I started at twenty-four, so you must be in the first room with me.
CT:What room do you think you’re in?
JM: I’m in the last room. This is the endgame. The game of the endgame is how interesting I make that last room, and how long can I stretch it out so that I can see everything that I can see in a room like this.Which means I don’t want to repeat myself and go back into things that I’ve understood. I wanna see the things that I haven’t been interested in or seen before. I’d like to see if I can find a freshness or richness in the way I live my life now to such a degree that I can make interesting photographs about it. Every room is like that, but you only know it when you’re in the last room.
CT:What’s hard about photography now? What is it teaching you?
JM: Hard isn’t a description I would apply to photography. I’ll start with hard. I’ve been known as a street photographer for a long time and it was truly a great course for my life. It taught me so much and it gave me such an insight into the way the world looks and works.What I feel now is that in modern life, with the introduction of the smartphone, every six to ten people are holding a device on the street.This has corrupted my interest in street photography, so what’s hard for me is when I’m on the street nowadays, I’m less interested in the human way of life. That’s hard for me because I found life on the street evermore fascinating throughout my life.To see the variations of human behaviour.The same things are done all the time, they’re just done with a different cast of characters.The stories are the same stories but they’re slightly varied. It’s like going to the movies. It’s the same stories over and over but the actors are getting younger or more attractive or sexier or fatter or whatever. I think for me personally, to be losing my passion for street life because of the way people are behaving on the street, in terms of not being in continuous connection to others but only being connected to devices, makes for a boring human display. So, I began to look at other things. Most recently for me, and the biggest surprise and the most delight and enchantment, is working with found objects that I’m so surprised I’m even interested in. I’m trying to animate these pieces of junk that I find into some sort of tableau based on what? When you look at the history of the still life, what is it? It’s fruit! [laughs] It’s shit lying on the table with a tablecloth and knives, and it’s been looking like still life since the sixteenth century.They are all arranged to be ‘beautiful’ with a little bit of light falling on them, with a dark background, and nice pottery and silverware and tablecloth. I mean it’s the same stuff since the Dutch started making still lifes. So, what do you do? Do you make the same kind of still life, arrange fruit nicely – that’s not difficult at all.You can use good fruit, you can use rotten fruit, whatever you want.To find a new form for the still life is a challenge, so I’ve been trying to even use them as portraits of objects and to find their spirit. Like when you make a portrait of somebody.What are you trying to find in the person?
CT: I try to think,‘What would this picture look like if I was in love with this person?’
JM: Oh, that’s nice.You really open yourself up to find a quality or characteristic that really pulls you into intimacy with them.That’s what you’re really saying.
CT:Well, it doesn’t always work.
JM: No, some people are resistant. They don’t play the game with you when you want to play. I really like that you said that. I admire you for saying that.That’s really beautiful.
CT: I think good work often comes out of obsession. Do you feel like still life is the current obsession?
JM: It really is. It’s so new for me, and I can’t quite get over it. It maintains my excitement. I’ll tell you something interesting. As a photographer, I made prints. I just sold a huge part of my archive. A year and a half ago, I sold 35,000 vintage prints out of the 55,000 I had in the studio.You can imagine with 55,000 prints around, I wasn’t interested in collecting objects. I’m not a collector of things. I collect moments of time and observations, and I make prints. But a few years ago, by some odd chance, I bought three objects for a friend. I tell this story in the book, in the first chapter, about my friend Johnny. I brought him these three objects, and I gave them to him because he’s a wonderful collector of things for other people. People send him out to hunt for things, and he’s just simply the best at it. Collectors come to this guy and say, “Can you find me a...?” and he will find them the something they’re looking for. But he doesn’t keep them for himself. He doesn’t have any real possessions. He gives everything away. I brought him these three dumb objects that I bought in France. As soon as we saw each other, he pulled out of his truck a huge piece of canvas that was used as a fireman’s net for people to jump out of burning buildings. For some reason, we threw the canvas over the fence with the hunk of it on the ground. I took the three objects from him, and I put them down on the canvas and we stood there together looking at them. I had this shiver run right through me and I thought, oh my god, look at that, these are tiny things against this gigantic background. I got my camera, and I made a couple of record pictures, just snapshots. For the next two days, I couldn’t stop thinking about them.What the hell does that mean? So, I borrowed the objects back from him, and I took the canvas and I made myself a still-life space. I just looked at these objects for a couple of weeks and I put some other things on it.They weren’t beautiful, they were dinged and rusty, dented and old.They had no measurable beauty. If I gave them to someone else, they wouldn’t say, “Oh my god that’s the most beautiful apple I’ve ever seen.” It just would have been this junk. However, a tiny Zen bell went ‘ding’ and that little bell was all I needed to know that I was on track. For me, it doesn’t have to be a big blow to the head, if I get a little tiny ‘ding’ it means that that ‘ding’ was more interesting than any other sound around me, and it’s the one that’s most difficult to hear, but I hear it. I always follow it.Through the decades of this book, you can see ten different turns in my life in which the Zen bell went off and I changed my course slightly, which meant that a new question about photography had arisen.A question that was interesting enough to take me off track and make me want to follow it wherever it’s going.That’s all there is to it. It seems to me that I am like Pavlov’s dog: when a little bell goes off, and I start to salivate, I go after that. Photography has shown me my life. It’s given me a life. I know it will give you a life too as long as you stay as intuitive as your description of what would it be like to love these people suggests. Or maybe it’s: what is there about them to love? That’s a very humanistic way of working, and I admire that because I think that’s at the heart of photography.
CT: Were you always working with the still life, but it’s taken until now to jump in?
JM: I never made still lifes. I never arranged still lifes. Sometimes, and I’m sure this has happened to you, you get up from a dinner with four, five, six friends and the table at the end of the night is just strewn with dishes and wine glasses, and for a moment it looks beautiful in the candlelight because other people did it for me. It’s only an observation, but I never thought of it as a still life because I didn’t do it. Still life – no. I still carry a 35mm camera with me every day when I walk out of the house, and I did when I was using an 8x10 too. I tried to describe each of the phases in the book, what was going on for me in my life, as a photographer that prompted me to change subject or change the camera. Often it’s in need of greater description than the 35mm could manage.That came from John Szarkowski. I was very fortunate to see all of John’s exhibitions and to even be in a few of them. I got my education from John Szarkowski. One of the things that John once said, but also wrote about a lot in the Sixties and Seventies, was: “Look, you press the button, all the camera does is describe what’s in front of you.” He keeps on using the word ‘description’ in many of the essays he’s written. One day I was thinking about it, and I realised that colour describes more things than black and white, which is why I always used colour because it had more layers in it. It had more information in it. I’m making a certain kind of picture on the street now in which I have given up ‘the incident’. By which I mean the hook that we’ve used ever since Cartier-Bresson. Two people kissing on the street or people fighting – an incident. I was trying to diversify and get away from the single incident and spread a kind of non-hierarchical energy across the frame so that everything in the frame played in an interesting and fresh way in my mind. I wanted to try to see differently.As I stepped back and started to make these wider shield- like photographs without the incident as the central hook, I thought, ah I want to blow these up to 6 or 8 feet across.You just can’t with 35mm even with Kodachrome, as sharp as it was. It couldn’t go the distance. It looked great as a slide on the screen, after all, movies are made with 35mm, so the image on the movie theatre screen looked great, but of course you couldn’t see that it was moving all the time. I wanted movie-scale images, and I thought the only way I was going to do this was if I switched to a large-format camera. I actually wanted a 11x14 camera. I thought if I’m going to go big, I’m going to go really big, but Kodak didn’t make film for it.They said they would make it for me, but I had to buy $20,000 worth of film at a time. In other words, I had to buy the whole production, and I just didn’t have $20,000 hanging around doing nothing, so I bought an 8x10 camera, and that was fine. You could blow things up really big, and I started making 40-inch prints, before Gursky or any of those guys, who by the way studied my work and Stephen Shore’s work and William Eggleston’s work because Bernd and Hilla Becher told him he had to study the Americans. I was just inValencia a couple of days ago for an exhibition of a show and I bumped into Elger Esser, a German photographer from the Düsseldorf school. He was there with Gursky and Struth and those guys studying with the Bechers. He told me that story again how Bernd said to him: “You must look at the Americans; the Americans and their colour photography are the future.”
In a way, they came at a time when big printing was in a new evolution. It wasn’t like that in the Seventies.The biggest you could make was an 80-inch print, that’s how wide the paper was. So, I made 40–60-inch prints as regularly as possible. There also wasn’t a market. People didn’t really trust colour.They didn’t think it was stable, because it wasn’t. It really wasn’t. The show I just had in Berlin was all vintage prints from the guy who bought the 35,000 prints and they looked fantastic. Mostly because I printed them myself in my own darkroom and I had better chemicals than Kodak.
CT: I’m interested in how the tool of photography dictates your work, whether it’s using a 35mm on the street or a large format in the Cape.Are you still thinking about the tool and how that can change your work?
JM: I have to say I was never ever one of those photography schmucks who cared about equipment. I didn’t give a shit about equipment. I had a Leica, when I did commercial work I had a motorised Nikon, and then I had the 8x10. Now I use a digital Leica – the S for large and the M for 35mm. IhadLeicalendmeoneandIblewupa print to 68 inches and I put it next to a 68- inch print from my 8x10 camera. Using a loupe, I looked at the print quality, from grain structure to tonal range to colour density. I really examined the values and there was hardly any difference at all, so I thought well if Leica is making a sensor now that gives me an image that’s as good as my 8x10, then I’m going to use it. So, I use the S now for all these still lives because some of these still lives I’ve blown up to 9 feet. It’s very impressive, I have to say.
CT: I wasn’t trying to call you a gear bro.
JM: I’m really not. Most people have been astonished at how simple my kit is.When I would go on advertising shoots, which would have three assistants, the art director, the account executive, the ad team and all kinds of actors, I would come in with a shoulder bag which had two cameras in it. They would say, “Well where’s your truck? Where’s the wheelbarrow?” I’d say, “This is it.”They’d ask where are the Polaroids so we could see what things look like, and I’d say, “I don’t use a Polaroid.You want to see what the picture looks like, here look through the camera and you’ll see what it looks like.” They were shocked. They kept on thinking they weren’t getting their money’s worth because this guy only had two cameras with him. Nowadays, I see guys going on shoots and they’ve got cases and cases of equipment and lights. I can’t believe it. I did thirty years of advertising with two cameras. How did that happen?! I was OK at it too. I won awards and all that shit. It was a joke.The whole thing was a joke.
CT:Are you asked to do commissions now?
JM: I don’t do advertising anymore.They’d have to pay me a really large sum of money for me to even think about it.The weirdest thing is that in the last year I have been asked four times to shoot huge fashion shoots. I never did fashion. I couldn’t care less about fashion, and yet I’ve been asked by M Le Monde, T Magazine, Vogue, Vogue Paris.Why now? Why me? How ridiculous is that? I say no to them. Sometimes a foundation will come up with a commission to do a long project for an exhibition or something like that. If they’re fun, they’re fun. If I’m not interested, I don’t bother doing it.There’s only so much time.You’ve got all the time on your side.You can do whatever you please. I don’t have all the time on my side, so I always have to ask myself when one of these things comes across the email, how do I want to spend my time this year? Do I want to run around and do this thing for them, or do I want to work for myself? The answer is there.
CT: As a female photographer, I’m often asked about how I experience sexism within photography, what it’s like to be a woman with a camera, but I feel like men never get asked this question, so I’m curious – is sexism within photography something you talked about with your peers? Is it something you think about now?
JM: It’s a really important question, and I’m glad you asked it because there are a number of answers that are pertinent today. In fact, I’m working on a book now with my editor that’s about strong women I’ve known and photographed my entire life. I was fortunate that as a young man, my mother was a very strong force in my life. She came across as a very powerful woman. My first boss when I was an art director was a woman, and she was unbelievably strong and straight forward. She made men kneel in front of her. I had so much respect for her. Her name was Estelle Ellis, and she was a powerhouse. She took down all the men. Our main client was Condé Nast, and S.I. Newhouse Jr., the man who founded it, would go to meetings with her, and I’d carry her bags. She was never pushed around by anybody. I learned from her that women are equal to men, without doubt. They could do anything any man could do.They were smart and wily and just incredible creatures. I’m lucky to now be married to a very powerful woman who has made a man out of me. It’s important for a woman to be strong enough that the partner she finds becomes a man. Men are boys, just like women are girls. Some men don’t ever leave boyhood, and that’s why there are such stupid men.That’s why they’re constantly opening their bathrobes to starlets.The Harvey Weinsteins of this world are jerks because they never had to grow up.They’re just big fat babies. I think it’s important to grow up, and this book that we’re working on about strong women will show my viewpoint.
I also want to tell you that I’ve always had women photographers as friends, or people I’ve been helpful to. Nan Goldin didn’t just become Nan Goldin on her own. I gave the commencement address at Nan’s graduation in Boston. After the commencement address,
Nan came up to me. She was just a little kid. She wasn’t Nan Goldin yet. She said, “I’m coming to New York, can I come to your class?” and I said,“Sure, come down and see me when you get there.” Sure enough she came to New York and she came to my class and she sat in whenever she felt like it. One day she showed me a bunch of pictures, and these were before the Ballad [of Sexual Dependency] pictures. I looked at the work and I thought, there’s something here. It was sloppy. Sloppy by my standards, and too casual. She had some fire. Leo Castelli had a gallery in SoHo, and he had a small print gallery up on Madison Avenue. A friend of mine was running that gallery, so I called him up and I said, I think there’s somebody you should see. I sent Nan up to him and he gave her first show at Castelli Gallery. I’ve always felt that there isn’t a line between male and female photographers.They’re just photographers. Mary Ellen Mark was a close friend. Sally Mann, Sally Gall, a whole bunch of younger women photographers I put into Bystander, the street photography book. I’m always on the lookout because I think too often in the past, while there have always been great women photographers, there were proportionally more men than women. It’s one of those things where you can’t adjust the balance just by wishing for it. People have to be desirous enough of the medium to want to enter the game and play. Not with the boys, but play with photography. Photography is the medium that’s there for everybody. I think, especially with your generation, women are a powerful new mind in photography. I think a great deal of interest and respect and curiosity has arisen on the part of editors and publishing houses and magazines.You are the force in the publishing world.As I understand, there are more women editors than male editors in this world.What you’re experiencing and what I am seeing is that history has arrived at the perfect storm of emerging talents and energies and minds. That’s what it’s about – which minds are coming into view.When I began photography in 1962, I was a painter and a graduate student of art history and I was working as a graphic designer. I had never heard about photography. I didn’t know anything about photography, and then one day when I saw Robert [Frank] do these pictures, I suddenly became interested in photography.The more I looked at it, the more I thought,‘Oh wow, this is an interesting place. I could do this.’ The more interesting minds moved away from painting towards photography, just like interesting minds move towards video and performance art now. Minds now are more equally female minds as well as male, but that wasn’t happening in the Sixties. I’m thrilled now that we have the vocabulary from a feminine perspective to show us the way the world looks.
CT: Beautiful.That’s all my questions.
JM: They were good questions, and I’m really pleased to speak to someone of your age with a kind of sensibility and way of expressing yourself.This gives me more pleasure than anything.
CT:Thanks, Joel. JM:Thanks, Caroline.
Special thanks to Fiona Livesey at Laurence King,
publishers of Joel’s book: Joel Meyerowitz:Where I Find Myself