An Interview with Joel Meyerowitz – Creating A Sense of Place

“There is a dawning awareness that you feel good in this place. Something here makes you attentive, brings you to an awakened state. But you can’t know that beforehand.”

Interview by Constance Sullivan, from Creating A Sense of Place, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1990

CS: Why do you choose to photograph a particular place? Why the Cape? Why St. Louis?

JM: You go someplace to be there. You take a vacation. You want to go investigate a middle-sized city. Sometimes you’re asked, sometimes you go because there’s a change in your life, and you just commit yourself to that change. And then you take the first step when you’re there, and that produces a response, and then you have another response. If you like the way the response feels, you keep on opening to it.

There is a dawning awareness that you feel good in this place. Something here makes you attentive, brings you to an awakened state. But you can’t know that beforehand. You can fantasize about a place: “Oh I’m going to photograph China.” You go there and it’s overwhelming, and you don’t know why you came, and you feel terribly separate from the whole thing, and foreign. So you make a mistake by projecting ahead. But if you just go to a place because that’s the next step in your life, and you’re an open person, at least in your photographic life, you begin to ask questions of it. So I think the reasons for going to a place are as normal as those for doing anything else. The way you respond when you’re there is more specific. Bells go off that are precisely your bells. You are aligned with the inner coordinates of your being, and you suddenly feel in the right place,. it may be the slant of the light, it may be even the smell, something not visible; you may feel yourself rooted to the spot where suddenly there’s a smell of salt water mixed with roses, and it’s got your number. At that moment you know, “I’m alive. Here, now.” And what’s there? Whatever you make of it. Sometimes it’s ephemeral and nonviable. Ordinary.

CS: Did you know the Cape when you started photographing it?

JM: No, it was totally new to me. I went because I was undergoing some changes in my life in terms of questions I was asking about photography, and there were certain things I had to give up, and I had to be ruthless about it. In order to do that I had to work away from New York City for a while. I knew that the time and work that a view camera required did not allow me to work in a big city in the same way that I had worked with a 35mm camera. So I had to abandon that notion completely and take myself to a place where life was simple, where life moved more slowly, where there was a chance to use this tool and to see differently. I had no idea what it was going to look like. I even kidded myself thinking I would go to Provincetown and work on the street, because it was busy, but smaller, I thought it was manageable. I hardly made any pictures on the street. Everything else seemed to call to me. And I believe these things are related in part to the instrument we choose to work with. An 8 x 10 camera isn’t for horse races. You do what it tells you to do.

CS: How did you happen to photograph St. Louis and Atlanta?

J,: They were commissions. Someone asked me, “Can you open yourself up to this place? Would you like to come here? Is this a place you could work?” I felt the call to St. Louis before I had any reason to work there. That size city, with that look and that light gave me a visceral reaction. That came first. A chance sharing of that reaction with someone in the photography community led to a meeting with the director of the museum, who then was able to offer me the chance to come there. He saw something in the work that he responded to. He was from the Cape originally so he read the Cape in my photographs, and then he saw St. Louis, where he was, and made some connection.

CS: There really are spatial relationships, and a similar feeling in the photographs of both places.

JM: Right. I remember my very first feeling in St. Louis. I went with a friend to do some research, and downtown St. Louis is filled with spaces. You could stand on one edge of the city, and I swear that you could look right through the downtown section—not as the street goes, but in between the buildings you could see block after block of missing pieces. There was spaciousness. I love cities. I love New York City for its energy and its density, and here was a city that was pretending to be dense. It didn’t expose any energy to me right away, certainly not in terms of people, but it had these sight lines through it and those plunging spatial openings called to me, very much like the Cape does. The Cape often speaks to me as a space between two buildings. I look out and there’s a whoosh, right out to the horizon line: two little cottages holding the horizon line at bay. And I’m sure, by the way, that Hans Hofmann worked off of this energy. He lived and taught in Provincetown, and what you see between the buildings are these pulses of energy—blue spaces of red spaces, depending on the sky color—and I just go whistling out those alleys into space. St. Louis did the same thing to me. So maybe there is something in me that responds profoundly to any opening there is into a deep space. And if there is some blockage in front, in my language—something to prevent me from going through—and then there’s an opening, I feel my way through. Maybe that’s my temperament. Maybe that’s the thing that sets those bells ringing.


Dairyland, Provincetown, 1976


Provincetown, 1976

Storm Over Corn Hill Beach, Truro, Cape Cod 1976

Storm over Corn Hill Beach, Truro Cape, Cape Cod, 1976

“By using the view camera I gave up the instantaneous gestural response to things that I produced with the 35mm. But what I tried to bring to the 8 x 10 was the same sensation of immediacy. If I was struck by something, I tried to have the 8 x 10 camera ready to make a picture quickly. I felt I was bringing a street attitude to the 8 x 10.”


CS: What lead to your change from working in black-and-white 35mm on city streets to using an 8 x 10-inch view camera and color?

I’d been working in both color and black and white for a long time, but shifted to using only color on the street. At the beginning of the 1970’s I had been seeking a high quality of description using Kodachrome 35mm, which was an extraordinary material in those days. However, I couldn’t get what I wanted on a print—they had to be dye transfers and were too expensive. So there were a number of issues, mechanical and technical that were interceding. I tried working with a medium-format camera in 1970—a 6 x 9 cm camera using color negative film—because just about that time I began making prints in my darkroom. But that camera was so slow that I began to lose the kind of image that I was making on the street. I decided, “If I’m going to put this camera on a tripod, I might as well put a big camera on a tripod, and get back all the description.” Consequently I got an 8 x 10 and began to photograph. Working with 35mm calls up a specific energy and the freedom of making a gesture with a camera. You hold a small camera in your hand, something happens in front of you, and click, you take a picture. A hand-held camera allows you to react in a split second. With an 8 x 10 camera your approach to things is much more meditative. The basic difference was one of mechanics at first. What you can do with a small camera in your hand you can’t do with an 8 x 10 big box on a five-foot tripod. But for me there was the need to bring one experience to bear on the other. I saw in the 35mm color a kind of quality of description that 35mm black and white didn’t have. Something about the way Kodachrome II described things was so cohesive, grainless, smooth, creamy. The color itself added this extra dimension of description. A red coat in yellow sunlight and blue shadows didn’t come out medium gray, it came out exciting and stimulating. I thought, “I want to describe that in my photographs too.” And my argument from the early 1970’s on was that color was significant. It just needed to become tangible. A slide on a screen in a dark room is intangible: it goes on for thirty seconds or a minute, no one gets up to look at a picture on the wall, and when it goes away you forget about it. But you can hold a print in your hand. I wanted to bring the values of the color slide into color prints. At the right moment all the right elements were there. So I began to do it myself. By using the view camera I gave up the instantaneous gestural response to things that I produced with the 35mm. But what I tried to bring to the 8 x 10 was the same sensation of immediacy. If I was struck by something, I tried to have the 8 x 10 camera ready to make a picture quickly. I felt I was bringing a street attitude to the 8 x 10.

CS: Do you carry the 8 x 10 camera around with you?

JM: I carry it with me as I would carry a 35mm camera. In the very beginning, if I went for a drive or to the A&P, the camera was in the back seat of the car; if I went for a walk down the street to visit a neighbor, or if I went to the beach, the camera was on my shoulder. No matter where I went, that camera was ever-present: parties, walks, shopping. It came from the discipline of carrying a 35mm at all times—in the early years you never saw me without a camera. I didn’t want to be in that position of saying, “Oh I saw a great shot, if only I had my camera.” At that time no photographer was without a camera. We got that from Henri Cartier-Bresson’s being ready for “the decisive moment,” and from Robert Frank’s traveling everywhere in America and making pictures of the Americans that seemed to occur in the most unexpected moments. Since my discipline was always to carry a camera, it didn’t matter that when the size changed it became big and awkward; I still wanted to have it at all times. So I provided myself with the opportunity of making large-scale, highly detailed photographs of unusual moments.

CS: Were you aware of looking for another way to photograph, or other subject matter, because of the view camera?

JM: I didn’t think of myself as becoming a landscape photographer. I thought I was going off to photograph whatever came my way. My understanding of a landscape owes a lot to Edward Weston. West Coast photographers made landscapes. They made monuments out of the monuments of nature, whether it was the grandeur of Yosemite or lichen on a rock. That was the way to photograph landscape, and I wasn’t Eliot Porter looking at the reflections in a pool. It wasn’t on my mind at all; I had no reason to think that was for me. The Cape didn’t look like that. The Cape was fairly spare: a couple of sand bars, some sand dunes, water and sky, and empty old houses. I wasn’t interested in turned-over boats. That isn’t a theme or motif that interests me—it’s old and dated and part of painting. But you have to deal with what’s in front of you, so the harder I looked the more I began to see. In a sense the camera taught me how to see.

I tried to bring something to it, which was energy and decisiveness and immediacy—things that a small camera taught me. The 8 x 10 taught me reverence, patience, and meditation. It added another dimension to the scene, and the pictures are a product of two conditions, awareness and time. I had to modify my early discipline. Every artist’s growing process involves giving up something to get something else. You’re giving up your prejudices and preconceptions, and if you refuse to give those up then you don’t grow. You stay where you are.

CS: How do you determine where you stand in relationship to what you’re photographing?

JM: You know when you’re there. It’s the dance. It’s the conversation. Very human terms are the motivation and the response. When you go to a party and you talk to somebody, you stand at a social distance. Or, if there’s some opening from that person, and you feel connected in some other way, you may get slightly closer and speak in a more intimate way. Or if you dance with someone, you may dance close or you may dance at a social distance. You feel it out. It’s like walking on ice. You really have to feel your way.


Sarah, Provincetown, Massachussetts, 1981


“I’d say in the last ten years I’ve learned to photograph without looking (that doesn’t mean not seeing). I walk through my life, wherever I am, the camera is on my shoulder, and I am just there.”


I’d say in the last ten years I’ve learned to photograph without looking (that doesn’t mean not seeing). I walk through my life, wherever I am, the camera is on my shoulder, and I am just there. And at some given moment I sense that I’ve walked into a zone of energy that stops me. I suddenly lose my forward momentum. There’s no reason to go forward. It’s not something I eyeball. It’s not a bunch of red flowers, or some thing that’s kicking off energy. It’s a field of force that I enter, and I cannot go forward. Sometimes when you walk on the streets of New York, and you walk under construction scaffolding, you step in, and at that place where the door leads into the site you smell the smell of wet concrete, of acetylene torches, and of the dust of construction. It’s a very palpable, powerful smell. You step under the scaffolding and there’s nothing; you hit the door and there’s a smell of everything; and then you take one more step and there’s no smell. You’ve left the zone. A current of air has been rushing across the path that you’re on.

I don’t mean to be mystical, but I feel there is a current of energy in a field that I enter, and when I hit that space I say, “Whoa, something is here. What is here?” The first thing that’s there is me. So now I find an opportunity to put the camera down and see what it is that’s defining me. And every time I do that I make a picture that has some special meaning to me. When I look at them afterwards, I know I was in the right place and the right time. And I use that measure to allow it to come into being, to stop myself from pushing through it. Because the easiest thing is to be blind, and to keep right on rolling until you get to someplace that’s a familiar, observable reality. But this is not an observable reality; it’s a sensory reality. I trust that now, more than any other form of approach.

CS: Your approach to photographing landscapes is different from Edward Weston’s and Ansel Adams’s.

JM: When I photograph in a landscape I don’t have the history and stance of Adams and Weston and Porter, because I think they have a more majestic view, a more idealized view. They went out into nature in the Romantic tradition, which was to go into nature to make your work, to use what’s there. But they also felt they wanted to control this and to poeticize this. They had a reason to make photographs. They were intellectual about it. I’m visceral. I just go, and if I see something I don’t ask what it means. They came at a time when the printed word was the strongest communicator of thought. And by the time they reached this place in our century, the visual image was the strongest communicator. Now the moving visual image is stronger than the still moving image. They came at a time when those conventions of nature, the description of it, had a different meaning. If you look at my whole generation, what’s interesting is the way we look at landscape. Robert Adams looks at landscape by seeing the damage that’s been done, the abuse. It’s a celebration of what it looks like in spite of the fact that man has left track marks.

There is inner space and there is outer space. The macrocosm of the universe and the microcosm of the inner universe, and we are just one thin plane somewhere in the middle—not the middle, but one of the many middles. I think that when we travel someplace, we’re in the middle. We’re not at home, we’re not completely at home in the place that we’re in, but we’re still ourselves. We bring that along with us. If you feel balanced and confident enough about your capacity to examine in this place, you’ll examine yourself there—you’ll ask, “How do I feel about being here?”—without making a judgment. I think it’s important to slice this really fine. To work in St. Louis or Atlanta is not to cast judgment—”Oh this isn’t as good as New York, or Boston,” or “It’s ugly.” Every place has those qualities. It just is. And if you’re there, and you honor your experience, you might just see wonders in the least likely places. And bit by bit you begin to know something about your feelings in that place. Perhaps the place makes you feel good, or perhaps it constantly drives you away.




For instance, in Atlanta I could not go downtown and work. Every time I went down there I was driven away by the inhumanity of it—the dehumanized scale. The buildings were too big and too close to each other, the street were all in deep shadow, there were no pedestrians on the street because everything had been designed with interior passageways—malls, crossovers above the street. It’s a hot place in the summer, so there are a lot of air-conditioned underpasses. People move like ants through the subterranean tunnels and buildings. The street held little charm for me. On the street I felt isolated. It felt dreary to me. Every time I went downtown and tried to work I fled. At some point I realized I didn’t want to go downtown; it was not part of the map for me. So the map I created of Atlanta doesn’t have downtown on it. It didn’t feel good down there. I didn’t work there. It comes back to that same thing: listening to your feelings. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t question them, of course you should; sometimes you have to overturn some of your resistance. But I think I honored the question frequently. I try to do that.

CS: In what ways have you changed your responses to the world over the years?

JM: I have been thinking about what a photographer’s responsibility is—his social responsibility, the responsibility to the craft, to the telling of the message, to the print. Although I started with what I thought was a moral imperative, that America was this crazy place that needed to be described and I had a social responsibility to tell it as it is-the Great American Novel in photographs—somehow over time, during my middle years, the aesthetics of photography played a greater role, and I became less concerned with serving moral issues.

And as I got a little older, it has become more important to me again to be morally conscious—not to vacate that responsibility, but to say, “These are my feelings about it. This is what America looks like right now. These are things that are socially reprehensible. These are things that might be overturned.” If you don’t point them out, if you only glaze the surface, the beauty of light or the beauty of the subject, you don’t see what might need to be corrected, or what can be changed, or what’s really wrong. An artist’s responsibility is to not avert his gaze. Maybe you can’t correct it by pointing it out, but you can at least certify that you saw it at that time, and that it was painful to you. I felt in Atlanta a reawakening of moral responsibility. I felt it was important for me to go to the malls, it was important for me to look hard at construction, at building materials, and to see the way neighborhoods were being put together, to see the anonymity of streets, the emptiness of what really passes for everyday life. I wanted to find a way of telling what I saw, or of keeping it alive in the photographs. In some ways I think I had lost a connection to that responsibility. I think it’s important to take a turn. For a period of ten years, in the middle, I was so engaged with the inner argument of photography: “Why photograph? What does a photograph look like? What makes it photographic?” This issues numb somehow. It’s not that I was dulled to photography, but to the world. Making photographs was all. I think I lost touch with the outside world. I’ve come back out in the last four or five years, with smaller works, and a deeper sense of real contact and community.

ASX CHANNEL: Joel Meyerowitz

(All rights reserved. Text @ Constance Sullivan, Images @ Joel Meyerowitz)

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