Joel Meyerowitz: Colour Sensations and The Sublime


Having diverted into photography after a career in advertising, Joel Meyerowitz went to Cape Cod, 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 New York. 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 exemplars of this, allowing the viewer to dwell on the alluring fear of the seemingly endless.

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.

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