Joel Meyerowitz: The Move Towards Colour

In 1962, Joel Meyerowitz was working as a junior art director at a small New York advertising agency, when he was sent out to supervise a photographer’s shoot. Upon arrival at the set, Meyerowitz was entranced by the grace and balletic physicality of the photographer, Robert Frank, who weaved his way around the two small girls he had been hired to photograph playing. Meyerowitz, who had always imagined photography to be a stilted and stiff process, was inspired to leave his job in advertising and pick up a camera himself. He later said of the encounter, “Robert Frank never said a word to me that day, but he affected me deeply. I walked out of there and I literally saw the world differently. Everywhere I looked, there was movement and there was colour.”

Colour, however, was not the favoured form of those who took a serious interest in photography in the early 1960s. Colour was associated with shaky family snapshots and garish magazine advertising. Meyerowitz, being unaware of the art world prejudice in favour of black and white photography, began shooting on colour film, producing vibrant, energetic scenes of New York streets. His ignorance of the photographic world played in his favour, as he was completely free from conventions and traditions, and worked in a way that very few at the time dared to. He chose colour film almost without hesitation; black and white seemed, to the young photographer, linked to the past, whereas colour represented the modern world that surrounded him.

Within three months of first picking up a camera, Meyerowitz had hitch-hiked to New Mexico and back, refining his craft. He worked solely in colour for a year, but when printing in colour proved complicated and expensive, he took to carrying two Leicas with him, one loaded with black and white film, the other with colour. If the scene allowed enough time, Meyerowtiz would shoot with both cameras, but as physical photographic prints became the goal, the Leica loaded with black and white film often took priority.

Meyerowitz quickly became part of a community of young photographers in New York, which included Garry Winogrand and Tony Ray-Jones. Meyerowitz and Ray-Jones would frequent street parades in the city, weaving their way into the crowd, hoping to catch glimpses of intimate interactions in amongst the crowds. Meyerowitz’s razor-sharp reactions recorded fleeting and surreal moments on New York sidewalks, and the works produced during this time bubble with the city’s energy. He revelled in creating visual puns and producing incisive and witty perceptions of everyday life.

In 1966, Meyerowitz undertook a road trip across Europe, starting in London and taking in Scotland, Ireland and Wales before reaching the Continent, where he spent time in France, Germany, Turkey, Italy and Spain. This trip marked a change in his outlook, and he now refers to it as his ‘coming-of-age’ year as an artist. The second half of the 1960s saw Meyerowitz moving towards the conclusion that colour was more adept at describing the world around him. Meyerowitz has said that colour “describes more things.” Continuing, he has 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.”

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