Ground Zero, photographed by Joel Meyerowitz.

Q & A: Joel Meyerowitz On Being The First Person To Photograph Ground Zero

Joel Meyerowitz grew up in the East Bronx, and rose to prominence as a New York street photographer. Now, he lives in Tuscany, foraging flea markets for odd objects and arranging them in striking ways to create evocative still life photographs. In a new retrospective book on his work, “Where I Find Myself” — which is organized in reverse chronological order — he tries to explain, through photography and prose, how his creative journey took him from a tenement in the Bronx to the Italian countryside.

Meyerowitz’s oeuvre spans decades, and includes countless examples of innovation in his chosen medium. In his iconic 35mm street photographs, inspired by the work of Henri Cartier Bresson and Robert Frank, he captured the frenzy of urban life. Later, he became one of the first photographers to exhibit images in color; before Eggleston, there was Meyerowitz. In his “Bay/Sky” series, he abandoned physical figures altogether for empty, vibrant fields of color, again challenging what was acceptable or even possible in still photography.

The 9/11 attacks figure prominently in Meyerowitz’s story. The photographer had spent the summer of 2001 on Cape Cod, working to assemble a series of photos he’d taken of lower Manhattan. The twin towers, he writes, “punctured every photograph.” On the morning of September 11, he watched the South Tower collapse on a local hotel television; as soon as the travel ban was lifted, Meyerowitz returned to New York, driven by the need to create a “record of the aftermath.” He convinced police offers at Ground Zero to allow him to take photographs onsite. As the only photographer given unimpeded access to the site, his archive stands as the defining document of this national tragedy.

Meyerowitz spoke to the Forward’s Sam Bromer about “Where I Find Myself,” his evolving approach to photography, his experience after 9/11 and the unifying elements of his body of work.

This interview has been edited for clarity and condensed.

Sam Bromer: Your book is organized in reverse chronological order from recent still-life photographs of found objects to Ground Zero to street photography. Why organize it in this way?

Joel Meyerowitz: Well, good question and a simple answer really. Almost all retrospective books are formulated in the same way. They start from the artist’s beginnings and they work their way to the present. And truly, you never know where you’re going when you start off, so it’s always a surprise. But when you’ve reached a certain point in your own evolution — let’s say you’re twenty-five years in — you turn around and you look back at your earliest work. At that point you begin to see, “oh, look, things line up. It’s interesting. I can see the connections between the first body of work and the second and the third.”

And so here I am at 55 years of shooting and I wonder, as the title of the book is called, “Where I Find Myself,” how do I find myself here, now, living in Tuscany, making still lives, when I’m just a guy from the Bronx who is really most at home on the streets of New York or big cities? How did this happen to me?

In a way, there’s a double entendre to the title: “Where I Find Myself” means the surprise of everyday life. And the other part of it is, photography has shown me a lot about myself, and it’s where I really discovered myself. So it seemed like this was a provocative way of orienting the work so that I could take the viewer on this backwards journey through the works with the perspective of knowing that I got here because of everything I did.

How has your 35mm street photography informed the classical compositions you’ve made using the large format camera?

When I added a large format to my way of working, it came from a need for more description than the 35 millimeter camera could provide at the time. I was working in color, I wanted to make enormous color prints. This was in the ‘70s before anybody was printing color, or anybody was even thinking about large prints such as we have today. The large format camera offered me a negative with so much incredible descriptive quality in it that I could make a ten foot print without any loss whatsoever.

But how do you square working with a camera on a tripod, with one sheet of film at a time, and becoming totally visible, with carrying a 35 millimeter camera — ten rolls of film in your bag — and working invisibly on the streets? These had real, separate qualities of working and of consciousness. But I tried to bring to the view camera the same instantaneous responses that I learned from 35 millimeter, and I’m grateful for the fact that I started on the street. Because I think if I started as a camera photographer, I wouldn’t have had the skills to learn how to be quick and invisible on the street.

When I applied those street photography techniques to the large camera, I carried the camera full out on the tripod so the camera was always up and in position. I had ten holders of film — that’s 20 shots — and I could slam the camera to the ground, spread the legs open, take a focus, put the thing in, and take a picture. All in less than a minute. A minute is really 10,000 times slower than a thousandth of a second with the 35 millimeter camera. However, it’s still fast enough to work with a sense of immediacy. So that was for me the crossover and the advantages that I brought to the camera.

How if at all did 9/11 and your experience photographing Ground Zero cause you to reassess your past work?

I don’t think 9/11 had me reassess my past work. It actually had me reassess the way I wanted to move forward. It was a big change in my life. That experience of nine months inside Ground Zero with thousands of blue collar construction workers and crane operators and bulldozer drivers and cops and firemen and detectives — The very same guys I grew up with in the Bronx, basically — sort of grounded me again. They offered me the opportunity to think about making work more consistently in the future that had something to do with being of service … not only the self-involved personal work, but work which has some relevance to the time we live in, some way of describing the moments in history that I am engaged in now.

So I think that’s what I learned from working in 9/11 and I’ve been able to activate that a few times since.

You write that Tuscany instilled in me “the belief that even though there was a new world order with terrorism at heart, there were still places where goodness prevailed.” Has life under this Trump administration shaken this belief? Is it difficult to take photographs when so much of the world is in turmoil?

Well, I tell you, if I was still living in America on a year-round basis you can bet your ass I would be out there traveling in America at this very moment. The divide in America is so great that it needs conscious photographers who are on their own, not doing a story, but who are willing to look at the social fabric and the way it is rent into the divisions that are tearing it apart right now. It’s visible. You go to any small town in America, or middle sized cities, and you can see it in the way people behave, in the divisions that are coming up in American society.

It will take a lot of interesting and discriminating looking to see it. Hopefully there are younger photographers now who have been awakened by the moment and are actually out there marking this time. I am, at this moment, hors d’combat, in the sense that I’m living in Europe and I only see America from afar and I’m caught up in trying to understand why I’m here, where I am, and what kind of work is coming out of this, and how am I manifesting this Italian experience in my own life.

There’s a theme throughout “Where I Find Myself” of visual elements from one era leaking into other contexts of your work. For example, the movement and proportions of the city are sometimes evoked in your still life photographs. Do you see your work as a unified thematic whole or as discrete, separate bodies of work?

I think that’s a really lovely question and it offers a lot of opportunities for finding the music of that answer. I think that bodies of work are discrete and in all of them, there’s a sense of discovery…I’ve made portraits, and I’ve made landscapes, and I’ve made really very empty spatial photographs in which there’s almost nothing to be photographed. So I think these things do telescope one into the other. As I’m in one body of work, something in that work signals a further move into the work, and the question that the work raises. So, for example, working out the seaside on Cape Cod, I began to see that the horizon line was a division between the sea and the sky. But photography offers the illusion of deep space, and yet it’s a flat medium, and the horizon line really divided the top from the bottom of a flat plain. So I moved into making a whole series of horizon line pictures. And then, at a certain point, I noticed that there were days when the horizon line was not visible. So the whole picture was flat and atmospheric.

So I asked, how can I make pictures of something as empty as air, where there was really nothing going on except light and moisture? And I made a lot of photographs that were basically devoid of anything except luminosity. So in that regard, one visualization or one understanding provides a portal to another question, and that question leads me somewhere. And then there’s another question, and so it goes. And I think that the unifying element through all of my work is that questions about the medium of photography have consistently arisen for me, and I am so caught up with the profundity of the expansiveness of photography that I just go to the next question and I think, well, I’ll find my way. And so, as I find my way, I think there is a continuous linkage that shows my process. I think if I were to answer, “what is my photography about?” I would say it’s about awe. My own personal understanding that life — being alive — is awesome. And things are so remarkable even the most humble ordinary things sometimes come at me with a scale and expansiveness that makes me humble and in awe of the richness of it. And so my work is a celebration of being alive.

2018 marks the 60th anniversary of Robert Frank’s “The Americans.” Could you speak a little about how Frank’s work influenced your street photography?

I began making photographs because I watched Robert Frank shoot a job for me when I was an art director. I didn’t hire him, I didn’t know who he was, my boss hired him, he was a good friend. And as I watched Robert work, the mystery of photography was opened to me. I didn’t have the answers, but the door opened. I understood that you could move and make photographs. And Robert certainly showed me how to do that. And then a few months later, I was given his book, “The Americans.” And so twice in one year my life was changed by Robert’s work. That book, I have looked at for over 50 years.

Robert’s book has always invited me to look at it again and rediscover things I might have missed before, but even if I do recognize the rhythm of the pictures and the meanings of the pictures, the very fact that he was capable of putting together such an exquisitely powerful dark poem about America, at a certain moment that he found the form for doing this, to me is the greatest achievement of the work, because it is the sum of all the individual photographs. And it has inspired me. When I first saw that book, I said to myself I hope someday that I can have a book of my own.

And now I’m on book 28, and I feel so gratified for having had the inspiration from Robert and from Robert’s work. I tip my hat to him.

How if at all has your Jewish upbringing affected your work?

Well that’s one of those questions that is so subtle. How does one really know what is a Jewish characteristic? Is it belief in one’s self? Is it a sense of mixing with the world at large so that a better understanding of it will come to you? Is it having some innate sympathy for the human condition and a warmth towards it? I don’t know. But these are qualities that my life seems to hold. And my sympathies and connection and surprise, and the sense of enrichment I experienced by watching other human beings, I can easily attribute it to a kind of Jewish mentality, where engage[ment], and a sense of humor, and irony, and a love of mankind are part of the overall picture.

What projects are you currently working on?

Well I’m living in Italy and what the Italian experience is offering me is real understanding. The slowness of the pace of living in the countryside; the quality of old things around; learning a new language and having to express myself without the generosity of my own American expression, but learning to focus my language into smaller tighter sentences. I am learning the history of this place and how art has been made here for thousands of years.

At the moment I’m making still lives. And [Tuscany is] influencing my still lives. The materials I use, the space I work in, the quality of the light, the colors that are involved in the space I work in, all these things are coming to me in a mix that has yet to be defined. The pictures are just a work in progress.

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