Joel Meyerowitz on the Street:

The First Decade

at the Art Institute, through March 19

Two contrasting approaches to street photography can be found in the exhibition of 53 outdoor color photos taken by Joel Meyerowitz in the 1960s and 70s. A related exhibit on the history of street photography in an adjacent Art Institute gallery, which Meyerowitz helped organize, includes two of his own black-and-white photos that clarify the difference. Spain, 1966 emphasizes the formal aspect of the scene: three large hanging cloths–two white, one a thinly woven black–are echoed by a man in a white shirt and a woman in black. The unified arrangement of almost-rectangular dark and light shapes, the gentle grouping of sensuous textures, anticipates the work for which Meyerowitz is best known, his sparse Cape Cod color landscapes, made with an eight-by-ten view camera: the subject is less important than delicate, almost touchable colors and surfaces.

New York City, 1969 is truer to the improvisational tradition of street photography. The overall composition is not perfect, not particularly beautiful in itself–in fact it’s somewhat chaotic. We see a group of pedestrians on a footbridge in Central Park; a photographer with his back to us appears to be setting up for a fashion shoot. This ironic little joke on street photos–which are generally shot spontaneously with a hand-held 35-millimeter camera–becomes even more evident when one notices at left, outside the central composition, a shirtless man who’s just jumped off the bridge. This photo is less a unified aesthetic whole than a kind of fragment of time in which the photographer has caught a tiny visual miracle: the goal of many street photographers. The process the viewer goes through–uncovering an amazing but small incident, the man frozen in midair, within a mundane scene–duplicates the street photographer’s quest: to see the quotidian as a vessel containing the miraculous.

In the exhibition of Meyerowitz’s color work, Paris, 1967 offers a similar arrangement of diverse pedestrians, and gives the same effect of discovery. Several look toward a woman’s hat standing improbably on end at the top of a flight of stairs. It’s hard to understand what’s happened, how this odd position of the hat is possible–until we see a woman on the right holding her hat tightly to her head. We realize that a woman near the center has just had hers blown off by the wind, and that the camera has caught it as it’s about to descend the stairs. Even after this realization, however, the hat retains the quality of an apparition, a vision that makes the invisible–in this case, the wind–momentarily manifest.

Other images are humorous. New York City, 1974 shows a man seated on one of a row of plastic chairs in a subway station. He clutches a huge roll of plastic wrapping that obscures most of his face and body; both the roll and his body lean improbably to the left, and the roll glistens with reflected light. The man’s tilt and the reflected light raise this image from the cliche of the pedestrian amusingly hidden by his parcels, giving it a visual uniqueness. In Coney Island, 1965 we see a man, facing downward, in extreme close-up eating a hamburger. The frame is filled with the burger, the man’s ear, his hands, his glasses frames, each item a different shade of brown; visual punctuation is provided by globs of red catsup oozing from the burger, one of which seems to climb up from the edge just a bit, barely touching the man’s lips.

There is a suspended, caught-in-midair quality to these photos: Meyerowitz, once a student athlete, captures near meetings, moments at which one thing is about to become another. But in other photographs the “miracle” is light and color. The porch of a white building in Spain, 1966 is covered with high-contrast bands of light and shadow, disrupted, even in a way humanized by three color advertisements on the wall whose yellows, greens, and blues leaven the effect of the dramatic blacks and whites. In New York City, 1974 most of a building wall lies in shadow, but at left center a boarded-up window catches the orange late-afternoon sun, which gives the wood a radiant, almost fleshlike warmth.

What’s extraordinary about Meyerowitz’s photos is the way a chance gesture or momentary color brings an otherwise mundane scene or composition to life. Our eyes are directed to the things a busy pedestrian might miss; we’re not shown grand buildings or cityscapes but tiny details. And nature is never far away–the sun’s light illuminates the board, the Parisian woman’s hat is blown by the wind. Meyerowitz offers a sensuous, poetic alternative to strictly functional everyday vision.

Born in 1938, Meyerowitz grew up in a tough Bronx neighborhood. His father, a vaudevillian and a boxer, taught him to box at an early age. He “made me put my ‘dukes up,’ taught me some lessons of the street–taught me to watch,” Meyerowitz has said in an interview. “I lived in a ground-floor apartment, so watching the street was great entertainment. After all, the whole of street life in the neighborhoods was based on strut and gesture.” But he also recalls, “I was the kind of kid who stroked and loved everything. I would drag my hands over things, rough or smooth, and constantly hold things in my hands.”

One day in 1962, while working as an art director, Meyerowitz had the opportunity to watch Robert Frank take photographs. “I watched him do the most wonderful physical things: passing the camera in front of his face, hardly looking through…so easy, so fluid. I was spirited away by his intensity and his movement….I went back to the office, and I told them that I was leaving on Friday.” Thus began his life as a photographer.

Though he made thousands of 35-millimeter color slides in the 60s and 70s, Meyerowitz was able to print only a few because the dye-transfer process then available was so difficult and expensive; he remembers that “it took 50 minutes and 17 separate steps to get a print, and it came out red.” About a year ago he decided to digitalize his vast store of slides so that they would be more accessible for archival purposes. He spent many months learning Adobe’s Photoshop program, which permits a variety of manipulations of stored images, then began to use a new machine, the Fujix Pictrography 3000, which converts digitally stored images to photographic prints. Together these devices allowed him to exercise more precise control over each area of the print than is possible with darkroom techniques like dodging and burning in, and to produce the same print each time. Astounded by the high quality of his results–he’d previously seen only inferior computer-generated prints–Meyerowitz realized he now had an affordable way to print his earlier photos. This exhibition, which he describes as “the first show of fine prints derived from a computer in a major American museum,” is the result. It should open other photographers to this technology–Meyer-owitz thinks many will prefer it to the darkroom.

Meyerowitz thought of the slides as the original works, so his goal was not to “improve” on them through digital manipulation but to produce a print that looked “exactly like the original transparency.” But because film is “always a compromise between highlights and shadows,” to achieve the original look required some active work. The resulting prints will likely seem to most viewers little different from conventionally made photos; only on repeated viewings did I begin to notice a gentleness, a softness, to the color and light contrasts. These are not images that revel in the sensuality of the print’s surface, as might be said of the silver-hard blacks and grays of Edward Weston’s magnificent black and whites; rather they capture the light values of the original scene. Meyerowitz’s goal, he says, is to make an image that feels “as plastic as the world.”

And in fact many of the best images here anticipate the mysterious interactions of color and texture of his later Cape Cod photos, though they retain the street photo’s suggestive subject matter. In Paris, 1967 a small crowd observes a man who has apparently collapsed on the street. At least one person, however, is not interested: a young man busily pushing a load of white boxes on a dolly into the street looks past the fallen man. Yet their similar black-and-white outfits and red ties seem to connect these two nonintersecting lives. One wonders what made the man fall, and what will come after: as is often true of street photography, the instant suggests a past and a future.

New Orleans, 1963 is even more mysterious. A woman stands on a street in front of two gray walls that meet behind her; on each wall, just behind and above her head, is a black handprint. To her left a fire hydrant faces the camera; the spigot is open but dry, and its cover lies on the pavement. What’s happening? And does any of it explain her dour, almost angry expression? But despite the mystery and possible trouble, one feels that every part of the image is connected to every other, each element a different shade of rough, textured gray or brown.

Meyerowitz begins to link the two sides of his vision in San Juan, 1972. The serendipitous element is a man on a unicycle carrying a giant bouquet of oversize, multicolored paper flowers on his head. The bouquet’s explosion of color–red, yellow, blue, green, and white–contrasts sharply with the facade of the bleached white building behind him. To the right of the cyclist, facing and pointing in the same direction, is a statue of a conquistador perched on a pedestal perhaps ten feet high: another sharp contrast is drawn between the grand world conqueror and the small, almost humorous unicyclist dwarfed by both his bouquet and the building. There may be a certain countercultural ethos to this image as well: it’s in the flower vendor rather than the great personage that Meyerowitz finds humanity. At the same time, the colors of the bouquet are repeated in small ways in the rest of the photo: a few green trees, the blue sky, the man’s yellow shirt, some red bricks.

In the strongest photos the composition is not merely a container for a momentary apparition, it creates a unified vision. New York City, 1963, for example, offers an incisive, haunting view of urban alienation. In this close shot of five faces, people walk next to each other on a street; each turns in a different direction and wears a different expression. Each is in a different world; none could possibly have anything to do with any of the others.

My favorite image is one of the least immediately striking, the least obviously dramatic. New York City, 1974 shows a woman climbing a stairway to an elevated train platform; on the street below a couple with a child walk in the same direction. The composition is typical of an urban view: a network of parallel and diagonal lines, the platform’s shapes matching the rectilinear buildings and streets. But for the viewer prepared by Meyerowitz’s other images, the details here have the suggestiveness of poetry–they lose the quotidian quality they might normally have. The teddy-bear shape of the child, his back to us, in a hooded coat; the way the red of the climbing woman’s collar is echoed by the red of a No Standing sign; the blue punctuation provided by a police car in the background–all suggest a world in which the tiniest detail potentially reveals a living vision.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo, “Paris, 1967” by Joel Meyerowitz courtesy of Art Institute of Chicago.