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Joel Meyerowitz

Text from "Creating a Sense of Place (Photographers at Work)"

What led 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 1970s 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 high 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 11 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 1970s 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.

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

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.

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

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.

Your 35mm work is concerned with incident - something that happens at a particular moment. The large format photographs are more about being in a place and just looking at it.

One can never get enough of the human comedy, because every day it comes in a different package: its tragedies and humor, its spontaneous unfoldings and awakenings. That happens in a kind of jazz-like way. When working with a small camera you suddenly are aware of a riff going on in the street, and how it makes you feel. You respond to that. With a view camera you're defeated. These instantaneous incidents are erased by time. A little camera can capture them in 1/1000 of a second, which is a heartbeat, a blink, a catch of a breath.

With the view camera you have to snare the subject with time and a deep f-stop so that you have something there consistent with the nature of the machine. It's a different way of seeing things. My sense of timing, my distance from the subject matter - all these things went through changes. In fact, the shift from black and white to color in 35mm also engaged those very same changes because you can rate black and white film at 1600 ASA; color has an ASA of 25. We're talking about almost eight stops difference, and that required slowing down. Working with color required me to be stiller, more distant from the action. No longer could I charge in and photograph three people five feet from me. I had to play everything back in order to get any kind of description. Description is the key word for me, and I owe my awareness of that word to John Szarkowski [Director of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art, New York]. I think one comes to it by making pictures, but John used that in his arguments of the 1960s over and over again. In his books The Photographer's Eye and Looking at Photographs, description comes up again and again.


 


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