Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Photographer: Joel Meyerowitz

18 months ago, I blogged about Joel Meyerowitz whilst studying for my People and Place course.

At this time I was very interested in social documentary and street photography, reacting to artists such as Shore, Parr, Winogrand, and Meyerowitz, trying to understand their style, technique and to a degree their motivation.  The volume of Meyerowitz's work I had to hand was a Phaidon retrospective consideration of his complete portfolio and at the time I found it fascinating how someone could step from the hustle and bustle of New York street photography into the calm considered use of an 8 x 10 view camera.  There exists a stark contrast between the complex yet momentary coming together of shape and colour that gives rise to a successful street capture versus the simple yet timelessness of his Cape Light photographs.

My surprise at this juxtaposition in his work, hints at the naivety of a newcomer to photography and the modern desire to pigeon hole anything and everything.  We want our musicians to belong to a genre and stay there, we divide art into modern or classical, we are horrified when someone moves from Rugby League to Union - in each case there is a sense of betrayal when someone steps across a cultural boundary.  In the process of studying for this degree we are encouraged to find a personal voice or style.  We eulogize those photographers whose work can be identified by personal style rather than needing an identifying label.  The inherent risk is that we pigeon hole ourselves and then find it hard to climb out of our self dug hole.

The camera is an astonishingly versatile and yet simple tool, it captures light rays and processes them onto a flat film or sensor.  We can discuss the relative merits of different films or digital platforms, and how these contribute to artistic personality, however, it is very much what we point the camera at that creates the "style".  When I started this course I was completely committed to an urban interpretation of "Landscape", eschewing the romantic idyll of the countryside for the angular environs of the city.  This was a noble ambition, but ultimately a tiring one. I quickly developed a need to explore soft as well as hard, to understand how tone rather than shape informs a photograph.  To this end I embarked on a personal project to document the early morning light in a park, still inside the city, but not urban - not countryside either.  That this has now grown into the foundations of my 3rd assignment, suggests that I was wrong to set limits on my development or visual "style".  My subject is still the city; this is driven as much by access as desire, I am here, the city is here, I do not need to travel distances to create photographs.  What has changed is how I interpret my world and in particular a loosening of the constraints on what and how I shoot.

Which brings me back to Joel Meyerowitz and my personal reading of his work.  He spans two worlds, the urban congestion of New York and the serenity of the the Cape.  And most likely many others, however, it is these two that interest me.  The excitement of his street work captured my imagination a year ago, now it is his sensitive interpretation of colours that guides me.  In his street work the driving compositional element is form, he is looking to capture moments in time when forms coalesce into a unique visually exciting pattern.  In Cape Light Meyerowitz simply considers the texture of colour. Time and shape have little meaning.  He has stepped into a completely different photographic world, from 35mm to 8x10, from 1/1000s to 10s, from contrast to harmony.  This is what brought me back to considering his work; he achieved in Cape Light what I have been seeking in my Transient Light study, to step away from shape into a consideration driven by tone and

What most impresses me about the photographs is their complex tonality, each time I look at them I seem to see deeper into the photographs.  There is an ebb and flow about them that reflects the sea that is often the subject.  In almost every photograph humanity is present, either directly or through the presence of their constructs, however, the photos never seem to be about a place or a person - each is a study of colour and light.  As an example, in many photos he uses a porch as the setting looking out to sea, I notice that in each the white frame of the wood serves to bring an extra tone into the photograph, reflecting the setting sun or adding a hard whiteness to the scene.  The two photographs that best capture what I believe to be his intent are in plates 41 and 42, almost identical and very simple images of a skylight, but each capturing a very different quality of light as it enters the room.  Even in those photographs where a strong form is present, such as the first plate showing interior rooms and doors, the overwhelming impression is one of overlapping shades of colour harmonizing in a soft light.

This is a very emotional set of photographs, a very personal take on a special landscape.  I relate to it because this is what I am currently trying to build - a set of photographs that capture my personal take on a place special to me and to others.  I find that the relationship of colour and texture in the images is more important than the placement of objects in the frame, although my current work does have a deliberate topological context.  His work gives me confidence and inspiration.

Cape Light

The question now is still how to bring my personal world of colour and light into a form that will meet the specifications of the course.

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