Camel Coats: Joel Meyerowitz in New York

The 1960’s was a pivotal decade for artist Joel Meyerowitz. Having turned from painting to photography in 1962, the following years were filled with experimentation and deconstruction. Moving away from black and white photography in the latter half of the decade, Meyerowtiz began embracing the limitations and aesthetics introduced by colour film. Starting to think through colour, his photographs began to favour more considered compositions which the colour film demanded, resulting in more complex and ‘unresolved’ images.

Camel Coats, New York City (1975) illustrates Meyerowitz’s ability to combine his ‘caught moment’ aesthetic with a more thoughtful approach to colour photography. The photograph shares the qualities of a film still, capturing busy life on the streets of New York, yet in a meditative, considered fashion. Commuters are pictured navigating their way through a cloud of smoke which is hovers theatrically over the pavement. The image’s overall tonality and details such as the perfectly placed shadows of passersby on the backs of others, suggests a thoughtful attention to detail. The photograph appears simultaneously orchestrated and in motion.

Taken in 1975, following a decade marked by the emergence of Pop Art and its comments on consumer culture, the photograph captures and critically reflects on society’s growing reliance on consumption. The individuals pictured are faceless, with their backs to the camera, armoured in camel coloured coats and ready to blend into the crowd as extras. There is a narrow strip of blue sky visible between the tall buildings and the sun is replaced by a beaming Gucci sign whose silver band reflects its rays.

Similarly to Pop Artists such as Andy Warhol, who took the everyday and made it visible, Meyerowitz’s street photography preserves moments which would otherwise get lost amongst the chaos of the rapidly changing city. Describing his photographs as ‘caught moments’, Meyerowitz discusses his working process, stating ‘We all experience those moments when we gasp and say, “Oh, look at that.” Maybe it’s nothing more than the way a shadow glides across a face, but in that split second, when you realise something truly remarkable is happening and disappearing right in front of you, if you can pass a camera before your eye, you’ll tear a piece of time out of the whole, and in a breath, rescue it and give it new meaning.’

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