#LivesOfArtists…With Joel Meyerowitz

What time do you wake up?
In summer I generally wake at 6:30-7:00am, workout and stretch, or walk the nearby hills before it gets too hot.

What do you eat for breakfast?
Pretty much the same thing every day: fruit salad and nuts, seeds and yogurt, then a homemade ginger and herb tea. It’s the preparing of the food that I love first, the selecting of each fruit, the slicing and dicing, the assemblage in the bowl, the ritual of preparation and the handling of the delicate textures and colours is a slow pleasure, and it adds a spaciousness to my mind as I lose myself in the simple morning domesticity.

Describe where you produce your work, and why you chose that space.
I have two spaces. One is inside the hayloft of the old barn we live in in Tuscany, where I have my printer setup. The other is in a 300 year old building, ‘La Remessa’, kind of an old storage type of place about 2 kilometres from the house, which has big spaces for work tables and for my objects of recent fascination.

Do you have a particular daily routine that helps you work?
I used to have something of a daily routine, but since Covid-19 my energies and desires have shifted to a more ‘when I feel like it’ way of working.

Where do you go for your creative sparks? 
I’m a street shooter and the street has always, and still does, nourish me and provoke ideas about life and photography, and my way of working. But sometimes, especially in the heat of Tuscan summers, I find creative connections through my daily review of my early colour work, of which I’ve just scanned 140,000 slides of mostly unseen work. That work is done in the home studio. At my age this reflection on early work seems totally appropriate, since back in the 1960’s and 1970’s photography was so overlooked that all the work from that time seems necessary to reconsider now.

What are you currently working on?
I have started a new body of a never-before-done subject for me – Me! I’m making self-portraits, but not selfies. The challenge of the self-portrait is as old as the medium, but every artist tries to find their own way in – to whatever subject they’re considering – and this is a real challenge for me. How can I avoid letting my ego dominate the photograph? How inventive yet ordinary can I make it? I am on day 204 and have not missed a day yet, and the game seems to get richer with every image made. You can get a quick, early look at a few images, featured in the New York Times here.

What do you do when you need to reset your mind?
I’m a swimmer so if the season is right it’s where I go, if not I walk the ancient hills of Tuscany. I sometimes just get lost in looking at photographs in my archive to see who I was when I made them, trying to see that young man, out in the world with no responsibilities and filled with the joy of self-discovery and at play in the medium…this often clears my mind and allows me to see the freedom of spontaneity I lived with back then and that I’m still enthralled by.

Who was your most important mentor or inspiration?
Well Robert Frank was my initial inspiration. Seeing him work turned me away from painting and toward picking up a camera. John Szarkowski of the Museum of Modern Art, New York is who I consider the mentor who helped me to see my way into photography.

Who do you speak to when you need a second opinion or who gives the best feedback?
My wife, Maggie Barrett, a writer, has a keen eye and spares no one her honest take on things, least of all me.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
While in art school I read teachings by Robert Henri, a painter from the 1920s, who wrote; ‘we are not here to do what has already been done.’ I hand lettered that motif and hung it over my bed in college, and everyday before leaving I took notice of it once again. It went in deep.

If you weren’t an artist what would you do?
I always wanted to make films. And even though I did make one film – a road movie called POP about my father who was in his Alzheimer’s stage of life, and my son, Sasha – it was more of a documentary, and I always wanted to write and direct a fiction film based on something that seemed necessary to me. I feel it’s too late for that now. 

How do you switch off from work in the evening?
I read a lot, and now, during Covid-19, I seem to be watching the films that educated me back in the 1960’s and 1970’s, from the ‘master’ filmmakers of that era: Fellini, Bergman, Kurosawa, Truffaut, Antonioni, Olmi, Tati, and many others. I’m trying to see if what I saw then still holds up for me, or if I was just an impressionable kid.

What book are you reading right now?
Understory by Robert MacFarlane.

Who is the other artist working today that you most admire?
A hard question to answer. I see younger artists coming up who I feel are in touch with their time in profound ways and whose works give me a lot of pleasure: Gus Powell, Ciro Frank Schiappa, Joshua Kercher Jara, Melissa O’Shaughnessy, Rob Stephenson, Giorgio Barrera, Kate Kirkwood, Ben Ingham, and there are others too. To see their work, and the questions it poses about the medium, seems more interesting to me today than much of the more well established photographers out there at the moment. Although, of course, I do have some favourites.

If you could have lunch with any artist from across time, who would it be and why?
I think I’d like to spend time with Eugène Atget. His modernity, given the time he worked in, the risks he took photographically, the way he handled people on the street, his exquisite sense of proportion, the mastery of his craft, the consistency of his point of view, yet the variety of his subjects. All of it made while working with the incredible difficulties of the techniques of his time, amazing!

What are you most proud of in your career?  
Pushing the boundaries of photography whenever a new question about the medium came up for me.

Explore More