Joel Meyerowitz: Colour Sensations and The Sublime

Having diverted into photography after a career in advertising, Joel Meyerowitz went to CapeCod, Massachusetts, with a vintage 8 x 10 inch Deardoff view camera seeking a different kind of photography to the type he had become accustomed to making with his Leica in NewYork. The awe-inducing scope of Meyerowitz’s lens achieves an intensity of visual data that reaches what is often described as the ‘sublime.’ In a 1757 treatise, Edmund Burke considered the sublime to be a ‘delightful horror’ that is both compelling and destructive. According to Burke, obscuring the boundaries of objects makes them appear infinite and allows the imagination to extend unchecked, offering parallel pleasure and terror, invoking the sublime. The limitless planes of Meyerowitz’s seascapes and beach scenes make them prime examples of this, allowing the viewer to dwell on the alluring fear of the seemingly endless.

Qualities Burke believed to encompass the sublime include vastness, magnificence, and a judgement confusing obscurity. Indeed, Meyerowitz fulfils these categories within his landscape shots. Bay/Sky, Dawn, Fall (1986) depicts an epic sunrise burgeoning over a body of water. The natural sight is expansive, with no visible object anchoring the image to a discernible scale. Instead, the water and sky appear infinite, encompassing both viewer and photographer within a sweeping view. Again, the photograph closely follows Burke’s tractate with its disorienting composition. The dark line of the horizon falls directly in the middle of the image, splitting the sky and sea equally in a pattern of symmetry almost too perfect to be natural. Folding itself in half, the still water reflects the velvety, pastel sunrise and the smattering of wispy clouds hanging above it. According to the Bible’s Book of Genesis, the sky and sea were initially attached until separated by God. Certainly, Meyerowitz creates a scene of biblical proportion, presenting the sky and sea as one contiguous entity. By situating his photograph within the biblical canon, Meyerowitz confirms not only its importance, but also its identity as a sublime landscape.

Burke also thought extreme intensities of light to be capable of inducing the sublime and Meyerowitz’s landscapes apply colour and light to reach towards transcendence. Speaking of his move into colour photography, he has said that colour ‘describes more things.’ Continuing, he explained, ‘when I say description, I don’t mean mere fact and the cold accounting of things in the frame. I really mean the sensation I get from things – their surface and colour – my memory of them in other conditions as well as their connotative qualities. Colour plays itself out along a richer band of feelings – more wavelengths, more radiance, more sensation.’. In Meyerowitz’s project colour enhances the viewing process, allowing a more palpable proximity to the sensorial experience of a moment or place, and resultantly to the ‘real’. This approach to colour made Meyerowitz (alongside William Eggleston and Stephen Shore) crucial in the repositioning of colour photography from the margins to the mainstream of fine art photography.

Following in the steps of John Martin, acclaimed landscape painter from the 19th century, Meyerowitz’s confident use of light and colour intensifies his exploration of the sublime landscape. Martin often utilised glowing reds and dazzling white light to signify nature as a force stronger than humanity. So too, in Bay/Sky, Provincetown (1977) Meyerowitz focuses on an ethereal, pale blue sky escaping through a darker curtain of purplish clouds. Thus, the vast magnificence of Meyerowitz’s photographs encapsulate a biblical history and sublime stature.

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