Photographer Joel Meyerowitz on the pleasure of seeing

Photographer Joel Meyerowitz on the pleasure of seeing

In a new book about his life and career, the American legend shares lessons gleaned from six decades behind the lens.

Like his photographs, Joel Meyerowitz’s reveries are perfectly composed, multilayered reflections of the world we live in. Complex yet accessible, they meet you where you are – as does Meyerowitz when he looks back at his journey to become one of the most influential contemporary artists of our time.

His first biography, The Pleasure of Seeing: Conversations with Joel Meyerowitz on Sixty Years in the Life of Photography, offers a look behind the scenes of a long and storied career. The book sees Meyerowitz teams up with historian and photographer Lorenzo Braca for a series of conversations exploring photography as an extension of being.

Meyerowitz shares his knowledge, wisdom and understanding gleaned from a lifetime working across formats to engage with new ways of seeing, thinking, and moving through the world. He considers essential states of instinct, intuition, presence, fluidity, connection and identity the way others might speak about gear, tech, or film speed.

“I was fortunate to start at a time when photography as an art form was quite insignificant,” says Meyerowitz. “In the early 60s, the only way you could make a living was by using photography to either do advertising or stories. I saw the seduction: making money could become so seductive that you would lose your way easily.”

Justine, Provincetown, 1977.

Having trained as a painter and studied art history, Meyerowitz “had a sense of wanting to maintain the high ground," he remembers. "I wanted to be true to myself. From the get go, I had to be clear about my identity and what photography meant to me. It was about surviving and having the freedom to do the work that I wanted to do. At that point, I didn't have much in the way of basic needs so it was an easy decision to try to stay pure.”

Growing up in the Bronx in the 1940s and ‘50s, Meyerowitz developed an innate ease moving through the streets of New York, honing sensibilities perfectly suited to photography. Attuned to his environment, Meyerowitz sensed moments as they were about to unfold, the camera becoming an extension of himself.

“Out on the street, you have to be finely tuned so that you and your instrument are one,” he says. “Making the photograph means that you read that space and sense when to move so you will be there when these energies create a visual phrase. That kind of attentiveness is not purely intellectual. It's also physical and requires being on your toes, almost like a dancer or an athlete.”

The results speak for themselves. Whether making street portraits or still lifes, landscapes or documentary, Meyerowitz is always present in his work, holding space for viewers to come.

“When I think the aesthetics are multiplicity of things, it's not only the visual understanding of how to make a frame – it's how you put yourself in the frame,” he says. “It's a living thing that you are worth walking through and keeping alive by the very fact of your presence.”

The Pleasure of Seeing: Conversations with Joel Meyerowitz on Sixty Years in the Life of Photography is out now via Damiani Books.

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