Joel Meyerowitz at B+H

The Beetles+Huxley exhibition Joel Meyerowitz: Towards Colour 1962-1978 presented a very different view of Meyerowitz’ work from the large-format Ground Zero images discussed previously. Unsurprisingly, given that the exhibition was mounted in conjunction with Leica, it deals with his 35mm early work before he bought his 8×10 in 1976.meyerowitzBH

Meyerowitz’ photography is largely self-taught having been inspired to pick up a camera when, as a junior art director, he was briefed to ‘supervise’ Robert Frank on a photoshoot. Being self-taught, and therefore unladen with the baggage of art-world received wisdom, he was attracted to colour from the start. As a matter of practicality, however, he carried a camera loaded with monochrome film as well as one loaded with colour, and much of his early published work is in mono.

There seem to be two threads as we look at the work chronologically. First, the move from predominantly monochrome into exclusively colour work. Meyerowitz regarded a European road trip in 1966 as his coming-of-age as an artist, and had excluded mono from his work by 1972.

Colour describes more things – more radiance, more wavelengths, more sensation. (Meyerowitz, concatenation of two quotes from the exhibition catalogue)

Second, there is a move away from the traditional ‘decisive moment’ images (epitomised by the ‘Kiss Me Stupid’ image above) to something more decentralised or non-hierarchical in which everything, including the colours, contributed equally to the image.

I was trying to unlock photography from the aesthetic of ‘the decisive moment’ – a difficult thing to give up – and to bring the photograph closer to the experience itself, which is inchoate and unresolved in ways that I had been reluctant to deal with before. (Meyerowitz, exhibition catalogue)

Although I have enjoyed Meyerowitz’ later large-format colour work, I found that my preferences in this exhibition were towards the earlier work, mono and colour. Analysing my own reaction, I believe it is because I am reluctant to let go of the concept of the decisive moment.

As always with B+H exhibitions, they make good use of a fairly small space – the photographs are close together but never feel crowded – and the catalogue is excellent value at £10.

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Research point – Street

Street photography is remarkably difficult to define. While much of it takes place on the street, a flick through Howarth and McLaren (2011) shows ‘street’ images taken in parks, on beaches and at an airfield. Most ‘street’ images are about people, but where does that leave Melanie Einzig’s ‘Teletransport’ (ibid, p60) or Matt Stuart’s peacock skip (ibid p188 and back cover). According to Richard Bram, ‘Good street photography is like good pornography; you can’t really describe it but you know it when you see it’ (ibid p234). The masters of the genre make it look easy, so there are an awful lot of people out there clicking away at random and claiming to be ‘street photographers’. (‘Readers’ Wives’ rather than Playboy, perhaps). The street images that I most enjoy have an element of humour, mystery or recognition.

Photographers

Helen Levitt

Helen Levitt (1913-2009) was a New York street photographer, active from 1938. Influenced by Cartier-Bresson and a friend of Walker Evans, she started in the monochrome tradition, mainly photographing children playing, but moved into dye-transfer colour through the 1960s to the ’80s. Her style is very much ‘street theatre’ and her observation and use of colour enhance the images from that period.

Joel Meyerowitz

I have already encountered Meyerowitz once in this blog, with his haunting images of Ground Zero that David Campany considered too beautiful.

Meyerowitz began shooting monochrome street photography in the 1960s, adopted colour ‘permanently’ in 1972 (4 years before Eggleston’s MoMA exhibition)  and uses both 35mm (Leica) and 8×10 large-format cameras for street, portrait and landscape work (Wikipedia 2017-1).  He is very clear about his reasons for shooting colour; in addition to being slower and more contemplative (25ASA as opposed to 1000ASA which was how he rated his mono film) he sees it as a way of capturing a wider sense of the experiences of real life (Kim n.d.-2)

source: erickimphotography.com

A color photograph gives you a chance to study and remember how things look and feel in color. It enables you to have feelings along the full wavelength of the spectrum, to retrieve emotions that were perhaps bred in you from infancy—from the warmth and pinkness of your mother’s breast, the loving brown of you puppy’s face, and the friendly yellow of your pudding. Color is always part of experience. Grass is green, not gray; flesh is color, not gray. Black and white is a very cultivated response. (Meyerowitz, quoted by Kim)

Paul Graham

Graham is described by Wikipedia (2017-2) as an English fine-art and documentary photographer, and has a string of awards and images to his name. However, I either don’t like or don’t understand his work (paulgrahamarchive.com 2017) which appears, to me, to fall into the ‘random clicking’ category.

Bruce Gilden

Gilden is another photographer whose street images I cannot like. His style is up close and aggressive, often adding flash. The images exhibited at the ‘Strange and Familiar’ exhibition last year (picture below) are grotesque and those chosen by Howarth and McLaren (2011, 54-59) are , with one exception (p55), distorting or ill-composed, stripping the subject of dignity without adding any story.

Strange And Familiar: Britain As Revealed By International Photographers, Curated By Martin Parr

Joel Sternfeld

Sternfeld is another photographer who moved from 35mm to fine-art 8×10 large format. He is now better known for documentary and landscape work, but started as a street photographer. (Kim n.d.-1). Many of his images have elements of story and of mystery – he likes to leave them open to interpretation. For instance the image below (one of his best known) shows a firefighter buying pumpkins from a farm stall while his colleagues tackle a blaze. The apparent dereliction of duty would be explained if Sternfeld had told us that this was a training exercise not a real emergency, but that would make the image more ‘ordinary’.

Sternfeld takes the view that it is OK for a viewer to place his own interpretation on an image; after all, the photographer has already done so:

Photography has always been capable of manipulation. Even more subtle and more invidious is the fact that any time you put a frame to the world, it’s an interpretation. I could get my camera and point it at two people and not point it at the homeless third person to the right of the frame, or not include the murder that’s going on to the left of the frame… There’s an infinite number of ways you can do this: photographs have always been authored (Sternfeld quoted by Kim)

joel-sternfeld-pumpkin

source: erickimphotography.com

Martin Parr

I learned to appreciate street photography through a growing appreciation of Martin Parr (which may explain my expectations of the genre). Parr is a street and documentary photographer who has worked exclusively in colour since 1986. His characteristic style has highly saturated colour and often uses flash to inject a sense of unreality and put the viewer off balance.

I would describe Parr as an amateur social anthropologist with an eye for detail and a sharp sense of humour. His images, whether of people or of still-life details always tell a story and often produce a stab of recognition. As the Magnum Photos profile puts it:

Martin Parr sensitises our subconscious – and once we’ve seen his photographs, we keep on discovering these images over and over again in our daily lives and recognising ourselves within them. The humour in these photographs makes us laugh at ourselves, with a sense of recognition and release.

(Weski 2014)

Research questions

Colour

Colour become part of documentary photography since the pioneers or the early 1970s. Meyerowitz, in particular (quoted above), is emphatic about its importance to the overall experience. It is now the majority format, as seen by flicking through Howarth & McLaren (2011) for instance.

Monochrome street photography is generally high-contrast and uses fast films (often uprated) to freeze movement and, incidentally, to inject a sense of gritty realism. The images are about shapes and geometry. Colour images (even when highly saturated, such as Parr’s) seem to be gentler and more contemplative. Both styles have their adherents and uses. There are images, such as HCB’s ‘Behind the Gare St Lazare’ that would not work in colour and others, such as Matt Stuart’s peacock skip, for which it is essential.

Surrealism

The question asked is “Can you spot the shift away from the influence of surrealism (as in Cartier-Bresson’s work)?”. The problem I have is that I have not spotted the connection with surrealism at all. I understand surrealism as an art movement ‘purporting to express the subconscious mind by images etc. in sequences or associations such as may occur in dreams’ (Concise Oxford Dictionary). This appears, to me, to be the antithesis of street photography which is based on a close observation of reality.

Irony and national values

It is a national stereotype (and caricature) that irony is part of the British national character and pretty much unknown in America. For one example, see Odone (2001). As with most stereotypes, it is based on just enough truth to be impossible to debunk, but is nowhere near a universal truth.

There does appear to be a difference between British and American street photography, with the American version being more serious and ‘in your face’ (literally in the case of Bruce Gilden) and the British more satirical or ironic (Martin Parr). However, there are counter-examples such as Sternfeld’s pumpkin-buying firefighter.

References

F56.net. (n.d.). Helen Levitt. [online] Available at: http://www.f56.net/English/artists/helen-levitt/information/information.html [Accessed 21 Mar. 2017].

Howarth, S. and McLaren, S. (2011). Street photography now. London: Thames & Hudson.

Kim, E. (n.d.). 6 Lessons Joel Sternfeld Has Taught Me About Street Photography. [online] Eric Kim. Available at: http://erickimphotography.com/blog/2014/02/14/6-lessons-joel-sternfeld-has-taught-me-about-street-photography/ [Accessed 22 Mar. 2017].

Kim, E. (n.d.). 12 Lessons Joel Meyerowitz Has Taught Me About Street Photography. [online] Eric Kim. Available at: http://erickimphotography.com/blog/2014/01/22/12-lessons-joel-meyerowitz-has-taught-me-about-street-photography/ [Accessed 21 Mar. 2017].

Luhring Augustine. (2017). Joel Sternfeld – Artists. [online] Available at: http://www.luhringaugustine.com/artists/joel-sternfeld/a-exhibitions [Accessed 22 Mar. 2017].

Odone, C. (2001). Comment: Anne Robinson has exposed America’s irony deficiency. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/media/2001/apr/22/comment.observercomment [Accessed 22 Mar. 2017].

Paulgrahamarchive.com. (2017). Paul Graham Photography Archive. [online] Available at: http://www.paulgrahamarchive.com [Accessed 21 Mar. 2017].

The Telegraph. (2009). Obituary – Helen Levitt. [online] Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/culture-obituaries/art-obituaries/5209410/Helen-Levitt.html [Accessed 21 Mar. 2017].

Weski, T. (2014). Martin Parr Profile. [online] magnumphotos.com. Available at: https://pro.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=CMS3&VF=MAGO31_9_VForm&ERID=24KL5357TF [Accessed 22 Mar. 2017].

Wikipedia. (2017). Joel Meyerowitz. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joel_Meyerowitz [Accessed 21 Mar. 2017].

Wikipedia. (2017). Paul Graham (photographer). [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Graham_(photographer) [Accessed 21 Mar. 2017].

Aftermath photography

This posting is inspired by the course notes, pp28-30 and David Company’s 2003 essay ‘Safety in Numbness’ (online at Campany 2017). Campany starts with Joel Meyerowitz’s photography of ‘Ground Zero’ in the aftermath of the September 2001 attack on, and collapse of, the World Trade Centre to comment on what what he calls ‘Late Photography’.

Actually, it is at one further remove; Campany comments on a Channel 4 video report on Meyerowitz photographing (as official photographer with exclusive access) the aftermath and clear-up of the event.  Meyerowitz spent 9 months at Ground Zero photographing with an 8×10 view camera and many of his images are surprisingly beautiful, which Campany appears to regard as a problem as it decontextualises the document from the event.

I disagree with Campany. As an occasional view camera user myself I know that this type of photography brings about a considered and close relationship between the photographer and the scene, in a way that ‘spray and pray’ with a DSLR simply cannot manage. A considered and reverential approach is entirely appropriate to this subject and the scale of the tragedy.

Of course, there were the news photographs and video of the events as they unfolded, including the second impact captured on live TV,as was the collapse of both towers but that was all too raw to assimilate. The immediate images and Meyerowitz’s aftermath images serve two different purposes; a point which I will return to.

Campany discusses the history of news images which, for him, occurs in three phases up to the time of his writing. I believe there is a fourth phase, post-2003.

The early history is exemplified by Fenton’s Crimean War and Brady’s American Civil war images. As noted in the course notes, these do not show the fighting itself but the prelude (staged portraits and groups) and the aftermath; see Fenton’s ‘Valley of the Shadow of Death’ and Brady’s ‘The Dead of Antietam’ as examples. The reason is simple practicality; before 1871, both photographers would have been using wet collodion plates and the middle of a battlefield is no place for a darkroom cart.

We enter Campany’s second phase with the advent of dry plates, then celluloid film and, more particularly the Leica and its 35mm cousins. With portable cameras, photographers such as Robert Capa and Nick Ut were able to take photographs in the middle of the action. Distribution was not immediate as photographs had to be transported physically to the newsroom and newspapers had to be transported to the point of sale. Still photographs were, therefore, ‘immediate enough’.

The third phase starts with the spread of television to the point that it took over as the primary news medium, coupled with electronic and satellite communication allowing news (especially images) to travel from camera to viewer in minutes. This picks up Company’s second thread – the relationship between still and moving images. Newspapers require still images; television works best with moving images. Campany sees the moving image as more immediate, and stills more contemplative and suited to aftermath. My take on this is that a moving image says, “This is happening now” while a still says “This has happened”.

There is a clear parallel between the two periods of aftermath photography in the Paul Seawright image, ‘Valley’ shown in the course notes. The similarity with Roger Fenton’s valley is obvious.

Safety in Numbness was written in 2003 when digital cameras were in their infancy, the internet was still a toy for academics and computer hobbyists, and the cameraphone had not been invented. Since that time, I believe a fourth period in photojournalism is occurring fuelled by the rise of social media and citizen journalism. Images of unfolding news stories, particularly disasters and terrorist attacks, can be around the world on Twitter or Facebook before the conventional media networks can mobilise. This has an upside in immediacy but a downside in compromising objectivity and in the out-and-out ‘fake news’ currently being debated. Although both still and moving images can be transmitted in this way, bandwidth considerations mean that stills are currently preferred.

Returning to Meyerowitz’s aftermath still images of Grand Zero, compared with the video images of broadcast media as the attacks, fire and collapse occurred, I am reminded of Susan Sontag’s comparison of moving and still images (1979,18), ‘Television is a stream of under selected images, each of which cancels its predecessor. Each still photograph is a privileged moment, turned into a slim object that one can keep and look at again.’ The viewer can decide the order of viewing and spend as much time as he/she needs with each image. The aftermath image and Sontag’s concept of memento mori appear ideally suited to each other.

References

Campany, D. (2017). Safety in Numbness: Some remarks on the problems of ‘Late Photography’. [online] David Campany. Available at: http://davidcampany.com/safety-in-numbness/ [Accessed 9 Mar. 2017].

Sontag, S. (1979). On photography. London, United Kingdom: Penguin, [1979].