All photos in this article are copyrighted by Joel Meyerowitz.
I am surprised I haven’t written an article about Joel Meyerowitz yet. He is one of the living legends and masters in street photography, currently at 75 years old. He shot in the streets with other legends such as Garry Winogrand, Tony Ray-Jones, and even bumped into Henri Cartier-Bresson on the streets once.
What is so influential about Joel Meyerowitz is how he was one of the revolutionizing forces in street photography and color. When he first started to shoot on the streets of NYC with Garry Winogrand, he bobbed and weaved the streets like a boxer– with his Leica and black & white film pushed to ISO 1200– allowing him to shoot at 1/1000th of a second and capture life (the maximum shutter speed of a Leica).
However he was curious about color, and would often shoot with two Leica’s on the street– one with black and white and the other with color.
He soon discovered that he enjoyed the thrill of shooting in color, with the relatively slow ISO 25 film at the time. It forced him to be slower and more meditative with his work– making him also take a step back and trying to combine more elements and action into his frames.
Meyerowitz (who has been a photographer for over 50 years) has also experimented not only with 35mm, but also with 8×10 large-format view cameras. His work in Cape Cod was what first helped him gain the public’s attention– in which he focused on colors and light.
Meyerowitz is one of the most eloquent people when it comes to talking about street photography– and his enthusiasm and passion just exudes from his body. I have personally learned a lot from his photography and life philosophy– and his multi-layered images are always a treat to look at.
In this article I will share what I personally have learned from Meyerowitz– and I hope that this could help you as well.
1. Experiment with different formats
Meyerowitz shot with a 35mm Leica for a long time, and soon decided to experiment with different formats as he was drawn to color film. He found the ISO 25 film on 35mm to be too slow, so he decided to try to experiment with medium-format.
He also found it to be quite a slow process– so he thought to himself: Why not just go all the way to 8×10 large-format and take things really slow? (For those of you who don’t know, an 8×10 is an old-school camera you might have seen Ansel Adams use, that requires you to lug it around on a huge tripod. The benefit of a large-format camera is that the negatives are huge, and have insane amounts of detail).
When he is interviewed about the difference of working with an 8×10 versus a Leica– Meyerowitz shares his thoughts:
“It transforms your way of looking at the world. First of all it is upside down, which is a whole other way of relating to things. And a wonderful way too because it sort of takes the content out of the context so now you are looking at it for something about the weights and the feelings. It’s not composition; it’s about how you know the push/pull of it.
Whereas with the Leica on the street the immediacy, the sense that something is actually happening and you are in the moment with it so that when you reach out with the camera, you are part of it and it disappears instantly. It’s the only instrument that stops things from disappearing. You can save them in that way. I learned, I think everything I know about being an artist, using a Leica on the streets. It taught me to understand human nature and to predict even the kinds of little things that might be happening. It has engaged my curiosity with the world and the meaning that comes out of the world. It’s really been an instrument of my education and development as an artist. That’s a mighty tool.”
Therefore when Meyerowitz would shoot with an 8×10, it literally changed the way he saw the world. If you look through an 8×10 view camera, everything is literally upside down. Of course it is also much slower than the Leica– which is all about capturing quickly fleeting moments.
Meyerowitz also expands on how shooting with an 8×10 taught him to slow down and become more meditative when shooting:
“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.”
In another interview Meyerowitz expands on this concept a bit more:
“I think [shooting with the 8x10] has changed me, for the better. I’ve noticed over the years (I’ve been shooting the view camera now for thirty-one years) and I’ve had many people say to me, in response to the view camera work, how Buddhist it is, how meditative it is, and often, if I’ve given a public lecture, someone will come to me afterwards and say, “are you a practicing Buddhist?” and I realize, in some ways, whatever has happened to me through using that camera, and its slowness, and the studied, reflective quality of it, has quieted me down.”
I think it is important to experiment with different formats, films, and cameras. Most photographers in Meyerowitz’s day started off shooting with black and white film on small 35mm Leica’s when working on the streets. Then many of them started to transition into trying a new medium–color, and with that shooting with larger and slower cameras (like the 8×10).
In today’s age I think most of us start with digital cameras (mostly DSLR’s). I personally started with a DSLR (Canon Rebel XT, then Canon 5D) in primarily black and white, then started to shift into shooting black and white film, and now color film. I would say that experimenting with digital, film, black and white film, and color film– has really opened up my world and ways of shooting.
I think experimentation is one of the most exciting things and ways for us to discover ourselves. If you find that shooting with a DSLR doesn’t suit you– try experimenting with a Micro 4/3rds, a point-and-shoot, iPhone, or even a rangefinder. If digital doesn’t suit you, try experimenting using film. If you don’t like small cameras, try going larger– and using a medium-format or even a large-format camera.
I think it is very important to experiment– but don’t spend too much of your time experimenting that you never stick with one thing. Although Meyerowitz experimented with 35mm black and white film, 35mm color film, and then large-format color– he generally stuck to one format and medium for a long period of time– to create bodies of work.
2. Focus on taking pictures
I think one of the most difficult things in street photography is how many things are often going in the streets– and how difficult it is to capture a good frame. Often the streets are cluttered, and we can fall victim to “paralysis by analysis”– that we think too much we forget to just take the photograph.
Meyerowitz shares when he first started to shoot in the streets in 1962, the first question he asked himself was: “How do I choose what to photograph?” He also shares how intense it was to be on the streets:
“I was overwhelmed. The streets, the intense flow of people, the light changing, the camera that I couldn’t quite get to work quickly enough. It just paralysed me. I had to learn to identify what it was exactly I was responding to, and if my response was any good. The only way to do that is to take pictures, print them, look hard at them and discuss them with other people.“
But what Meyerowitz learned was that although there was so much action and commotion on the streets– he just had to take photos and think about the consequences later.
I agree with this mentality– when you see something in the streets, don’t think too much about it. Just try your best to click and capture the moment. Then when you go home and take a look at your shots, then you can critique yourself, edit your bad photos, and ask for feedback from your colleagues and other street photographers you trust.
In another interview, Meyerowitz shares how shooting in the streets isn’t always perfect:
“One of the very first things I learned working on the street is when the moment arrives—you need to take a picture of the moment and often the frame itself isn’t a perfect frame. It isn’t a Cartier-Bresson classically organized frame. It has a different kind of energy in it—it is clumsier, bolder, it is more about the first strength of the connection of whatever is going on and your strength as an artist.”
Meyerowitz shares his thoughts on what he thinks an interesting moment is on the streets:
“I was struggling to how to be in the moment, how close to get to someone—how do I understand that there is significance? Sometimes the tip-off is that it is a joke, witty observation, or sometimes even philosophy.”
At the end of the day, Meyerowitz sees himself less as an artist– and more of an observer and documenter of experiences:
“I don’t think of my photos as works of art—I see them as a fraction of a second in which my understanding and the worlds offering are unified in some way. That allows us to have some sort of open experience to share with whoever happens to look at the photo. So it isn’t formal, it is more experiential.“
When you are shooting in the streets– especially when it is crowded and bustling, it can be quite overwhelming. Your job of a street photographer is to not be overwhelmed by this– but try to make some sense of the chaos you experience.
Some of the practical tips that Meyerowitz offers is for us to not worry about making perfect frames– but to simply capture the moments and experiences we see on the streets. Then afterwards, we can critique and edit out our bad shots.
One quote that has stuck with me is from my friend Charlie Kirk who says: “When in doubt, click.” There are many moments that I often hesitate to take a photograph, because I am not certain if it will be an interesting photograph, or I get worried about how my subject might respond to me.
Therefore the moment I have any sort of doubts or hesitation, I just take the photograph. The worst that will happen is that it will be a boring photo or the person might get upset at me. But the best thing that might happen is that it will be a great photograph.
3. Document history
Although Meyerowitz was mostly known for his street photography and his large-format work in Cape Cod, he was quite stirred by the terrorist attacks of September 11th– and had a sense of duty to capture the aftermath at ground-zero.
During the aftermath of 9/11, no photographer was able to get directly onto ground zero to photograph. However Meyerowitz was so passionate about documenting this moment of history for the rest of society that he was able to persevere into gaining a worker’s pass by the NYC parks commissioner, Adrian Benepe.
He was also able to build the right connections that allowed him to receive an official NYPD badge by the detectives he had befriended on the site. Meyerowitz shares: “They got what I was doing. Not one of the art galleries or government officials I contacted for help in gaining access to the site got it, but the cops understood it completely.”
The amount of work that Meyerowitz put in photographing the aftermath was incredible. When he started shooting on September 23rd, 2001– the heat from the ground was so hot that it would melt the soles of his boots. Meyerowitz shares his experiences:
“I photographed everything 14 hours a day: the demolition crews, the construction crews, the first-aid crews, the debris removal crews, the intelligence squad, even the security guys who initially tried to keep me off the site.” The archive is a work of testimony that will enter not just the history of photography, but history itself.”
Although Meyerowitz is mostly known as a street photographer and a fine art photographer– I think his 9/11 aftermath photographs are his most meaningful. His photographs are now a permanent installation at the 9/11 memorial in NYC– and the images he was able to capture recorded that moment in history– for future generations to remember and reflect upon.
Although most of us as street photographers don’t have the same sort of opportunity that Meyerowitz did in photographing 9/11 after the terrorist attacks, we must remind ourselves of our duty to society
and how our photographs are historical documents of our time.
Many of us tend to romanticize the past. I remember I have thought to myself: “Man, I wish I was a photographer like Henri Cartier-Bresson in the 1920’s, everything just looked so much more interesting back then.”
But honestly, the people in the 1920’s probably didn’t think that their world or lives were that interesting. The people from the 1920’s probably romanticized the 1800’s, and those people the 1600’s.
Any photograph we take today will intrinsically be interesting 50 years from now. Even though taking photos of people on their iPhones may seem cliche and boring, people 50 years from now might say: “Oh man, they had iPhones back then?”
I know lots of street photographers who just took photographs in their own neighborhoods a few decades ago as fun– as hobbyists. But now when I look at their work, they captured so many important scenes, buildings, people, and moments that are now gone.
So don’t romanticize the past– realize that you live in the most interesting moment. Create history by preserving what is in the present moment– for future generations to look at and admire.
4. Constantly question yourself
Many of us as photographers often self-question ourselves. I don’t know any photographer (no matter how great he/she is) who has never had self-doubt. We might wonder to ourselves why we photograph, if they have any meaning, or if we are any good at all?
Even the greats and masters (like Meyerowitz) have questioned themselves in their photography. But I think it is in this critical self-examination and asking of questions which leads us to some direction and truth. Meyerowitz shares the questions he has had for himself the last 50 years of photographing (that he has been trying to answer):
“It’s me asking myself: ‘ How interesting is this medium? And how interesting can I make it for me? And, by the way, who the fuck am I?‘”
Even Meyerowitz said he hasn’t found a definitive answer for himself: “No, not yet [smiling], and time is running out. But I’m getting there.”
If you have self-doubts about your photography, don’t fret. I think it is a good sign that you are challenging yourself, your work, and why you do what you do.
Socrates once famously said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” I think the same goes for our photography (and life).
Many of us just go out on the streets because it compels us– but we never ask ourselves “why?”
Of course I cannot answer the question for you. Only you know why you go out on the streets to photograph.
Personally I photograph on the streets because I am trying to make social statements and critiques about our society. This stems from my background and passion in Sociology– wanting to understand the world around me. But even my personal reasons for shooting constantly changes and evolves over time.
Even Joel Meyerowitz has been asking him the question “why” for the last 50 years. And he is still trying to figure out things– so let us not be so hard on ourselves. Who knows, we may never figure out why we shoot. But as Steve Jobs once said, “The journey is the reward.”
5. On shooting in color
Meyerowitz shot shoulder-to-shoulder with Garry Winogrand on the streets of NYC in black and white, pushing his film to ISO 1200
allowing him to capture life at 1/1000th of a second.
So why would he switch to shooting color, in which the ISO was only rated at a measly 25?
Meyerowitz shares his reasons shooing in color– one of the main reasons being the emotions and sensations he got from the description of color:
Interviewer: Why are you using color?
Meyerowitz: Because it describes more things.
Interviewer: What do you mean by description?
Meyerowitz: When I say description, I don’t only mean mere fact and the cold accounting of things in the frame. I really mean the sensation I get from things—their surface and color—my memory of them in other conditions as well as their connotative qualities. Color plays itself out along a richer band of feelings—more wavelengths, more radiance, more sensation. I wanted to se more and experience more feelings from a photograph, and I wanted bigger images that would describe things more fully, more cohesively. Slow-speed color film provided that.
Meyerowitz expands on the ability of color film to capture a wider sense of experiences in “real life”:
“The fact is that color film appears to be responsive to the full spectrum of visible light while black and white reduces the spectrum to a very narrow wavelength. This stimulates in the user of each material a different set of responses. A color photograph gives you a chance to study and remember how things look and feel in color. It enables you to have feelings along the full wavelength of the spectrum, to retrieve emotions that were perhaps bred in you from infancy—from the warmth and pinkness of your mother’s breast, the loving brown of you puppy’s face, and the friendly yellow of your pudding. Color is always part of experience. Grass is green, not gray; flesh is color, not gray. Black and white is a very cultivated response.”
We see the world in color– it is what is natural to us. Black and white is more of an abstraction– nobody literally sees the world in black and white.
Also when you shoot in black and white, there is less description in a photograph. Color often has meanings prescribed to it– and when you shoot in black and white, you strip away some of that meaning.
Meyerowitz was able to articulate his reasons of shooting in color quite poetically. He shares also that seeing things in color often has a wider spectrum of emotions. Color often brings out warmth and memories from our past– something that black and white doesn’t.
Personally I used to shoot exclusively in black and white– and it caused me to see the world in a different way. I saw the world around me as abstractions– in black and white. I was more drawn to shapes, forms, lines, reflections, and the contrast of light.
However when I transitioned into shooting in color, I was first frustrated with the complications color brought (more variables to deal with)
but I loved the challenge and the extra meaning that color brought out.
For example, if you photograph a beautiful woman in a red dress (in black and white)
you only see a beautiful woman in a dress. But if you shoot her in color, you have the extra meaning of the red: red is often the color of lust, danger, passion– which makes the photograph have more depth, meaning, and emotion.
Shooting in color doesn’t make you a “better” photographer than shooting in black and white. Both have their strengths and weaknesses. But I encourage you if you do shoot in color, don’t just shoot color for the sake of it. Think about the extra meaning and layers that color brings out in your images. See the world in color.
6. Capture your feelings
Photography is a visual art form– in which we are capturing elements from the real world and putting it inside a frame. I think nowadays the trend in street photography is to try to focus on complex compositions and layers– but sometimes these images are devoid of emotions and feelings. Even the critique I have of Henri Cartier-Bresson is that although his photographs are perfectly composed and geometrically well-balanced, many of them are more about composition (and less about emotion).
Meyerowitz discovered this through his work– that one of his primary focuses was to capture more emotion and feelings in his images:
“What are we all trying to get to in the making of anything? We’re trying to get to ourselves. What I want is more of my feelings and less of my thoughts. I want to be clear. I see the photograph as a chip of experience itself. It exists in the world. It is not a comment on the world. In a photograph you don’t look for, you look at! It’s close to the thing itself. It’s like an excitation. I want the experience that I am sensitive to to pass back into the world, fixed by chemistry and light to be reexamined. That’s what all photographs are about—looking at things hard. I want to find an instrument with the fidelity of its own technology to carry my feelings in a true, clear, and simple way. That’s how I want to think about less is more.”
I think what makes a meaningful and memorable photograph is one that has a sense of emotion, feeling– that we can relate with. The best street photographs to me aren’t the ones that have fancy compositions or framing– but images that touch us in the heart. And of course emotions aren’t always pretty– they often touch on the darker parts of life as well.
Nowadays when I look through my images and edit them– I don’t just judge them in terms of what is going on in the photograph (content) and how well composed it is (form). Rather, I am trying to focus on the emotion that my images bring out.
One photographer I highly admire is Brian Soko, a street photographer based in Chicago. His photographs burst with emotion
and it is something I can connect with on a deeper level. Most of his photographs don’t have fancy compositions and are quite straight-forward. But they work, as they hit me straight in the heart and burn themselves into my mind.
If you find your photographs not to be as interesting or engaging– try to focus on capturing emotions. The rest will take care of itself.
7. Embrace ordinary things
I think one of the things that draws us all to street photography is how ordinary it is. Street photography is one of the most democratic forms of photography– as anyone with any camera can do it in his/her backyard. And it is often the ordinary moments that have the most charm.
Meyerowitz is a champion of the ordinary circumstances of street photography:
“Why is it that the best poetry comes out of the most ordinary circumstances? You don’t have to have extreme beauty to write beautifully. You don’t have to have grand subject matter. I don’t need the Parthenon. This little dinky bungalow is my Parthenon. It has scale; it has color; it has presence; it is real: I’m not trying to work with grandeur. I’m trying to work with ordinariness. I’m trying to find what spirits me away. Ordinary things.
- What did I say when I drove by those bungalows—something about the lives lived in them?”
I think one of the frustrations that most of us have is that not all of us live in “interesting” places (such as New York, Tokyo, Paris, or London). However funny enough, all the people I know who live in those cities don’t find their cities that interesting either (my friends from New York would rather be in London, my London friends would rather be in Paris, and my Paris friends would rather be in New York).
The grass is always greener on the other side. And know that no matter how ordinary the place you live (even if you live in a boring suburb– you can still make great images).
Take Lee Friedlander for example. He took tons of great photos in pretty boring and suburby-looking places. William Eggleston has lived his entire life in his town (which I heard is quite boring)– and still captured beautiful colors, light, and moments.
So embrace the ordinariness of the world around you– and try to make it extraordinary.
A tip I have is imagine if an alien visited your neighborhood, town, or city. What would they find interesting and odd? Then try to photograph that– and see where you live from an outsider’s perspective.
8. Always have your camera with you (no matter how big)
Many of us bemoan how heavy, burdensome, and annoying it is to carry our cameras. I remember when I shot with a DSLR and how much I told myself the day I got a Leica how much more I would carry it with me. But even nowadays the Leica is starting to feel a bit heavy, and I prefer carrying around a compact camera (Contax T3) for most of my daily excursions.
But regardless of how much of a pain it might be to carry around our cameras with ourselves everywhere we go– realize it isn’t as annoying as carrying around an 8×10 camera with you everywhere you go. And that is exactly that Meyerowitz did:
Interviewer: 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.”
We never know when a great photography opportunity moment will arise. Have you ever had an instance when you saw a great photo opportunity but you didn’t have your camera with you? Yeah, it is a pretty crappy feeling– it has happened to all of us (myself included).
So regardless of what camera you have– put yourself in the habit of always carrying your camera with you. To the grocery store, gas station, school, work, to the library– whatever. Because it is often in the most ordinary moments that the most extraordinary things happen. Some of my best photographs have happened in the least expected places (eating at fast food restaurants, at the grocery store, or on the way to pick up my girlfriend Cindy from school).
So always be prepared
you never know when “the decisive moment” will appear.
9. Be socially conscious
I think that as street photographers– it is important for us to have a sense of obligation or duty to be socially conscious. After all, we are documenting people and society through our lens. If humanity and social consideration isn’t part of the equation in our work– I don’t think we can really call ourself street photographers.
Meyerowitz expands his thoughts on being socially conscious in his photography. He first started off being more concerned with the aesthetics of photography (than the social or the moral aspects):
“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.”
However as time went on, he shifted to being more interested in the social and moral considerations in his photography:
“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.”
Meyerowitz again expands on challenging himself and why he photographs
and realized how much he had to connect back with society and the community:
“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.”
To be a street photographer is to be socially conscious and socially engaged with the rest of the world. If we always put the aesthetic over the socially and morally important parts of photography– we will only be stuck in making pretty photographs that are devoid of meaning.
So think about the moral and social responsibility you have as a photographer– through the work that you create. Are the images you create saying something greater about society or the world around you? Or are they just visually aesthetically interesting photographs? Granted we need both to make a powerful frame– but as Meyerowitz challenged himself– we should challenge ourselves in terms of being socially and morally conscious with our work.
10. On making a book
One thing I learned through Meyerowitz through his interviews is how he puts together his books. He gives some valuable insights.
Meyerowitz first shares how he prints out his photos small (like a deck of cards) and carries with him– and lays them out on the ground and sequences and puts them together:
“Before I lay out a book, I read the pictures many many times, until I’ve absorbed the so-called meaning of each picture. My feeling about it – not intellectually, but my gut feeling about these pictures and how I relate to them, and then I just collect them all as miniatures, at three inches across, and I carry them with me like a deck of cards, and I lay them out, everytime I have a few minutes, I lay them out – I’m doing it now, for this next book – I lay them out and look and look, and then I’ll see something that looks like a starting point. So I’ll put that picture first, and then I’ll see what happens. What does it call, like magnetism, to itself? And what do these two call themselves, and what do these three call? Because it’s not just about the next picture, it’s the weight of the three of them in a row. Five of them in a row. Ten! I can set-up certain rhythms or cadences, so that when you get to the third or fourth picture, you begin to realize the first picture again, like, ‘oh yeah, the first and fourth are linked!’ And there are these links so that if you were to make a drawing of this book, if there were forty pictures – I could probably make a diagram that comes after the fact, not before the fact, that the first connects to the fourth and the tenth and on and on – and that there are these interconnections. It’d be a fun thing to do, actually!”
Meyerowitz also challenges us to look at our favorite books in terms of getting inspiration to putting books together:
“You should take your favorite book and take it apart that way and see why it works that way. What is it about the rhythm of these pictures that make you see it as a book, rather than a collection of pictures. I think, too many photographers make books that are just collections of pictures. You could throw them together any way and they’d be alright. And there are other photographers that make books that are works of art, as a book.”
Meyerowitz shares a lot about the rhythm and the flow of images in a book. A photographic book isn’t just a collection of images. We need to consider how the images connect with one another, and create another layer of meaning through these relationships.
Many of us who shoot digitally often don’t have the chance to print out our work and look at them.
As a fun exercise, try to print out your favorite images as small 4×6 prints (can be done at any cheap drugstore or online)– and carry them with you as a mobile portfolio. Look at them constantly, and even think about how you can pair them, sequence them– and perhaps put a book of them together.
Also you can use that as an opportunity get more tactile, hands-on critique and feedback from other street photographers you admire and trust.
11. On the democracy of photography
One argument that goes on a lot is digital versus film. People who shoot digital don’t understand why people shoot film. And sometimes film shooters can be snobby and say digital photography is too easy and isn’t “art.”
But let us remember– street photography is the most democratic type of photography out there. When Meyerowitz was asked about the difference between film and digital– he doesn’t really care. He loves the democracy of photography:
“Photography’s always been a very democratic medium. In the sense that the camera’s the same. It used to be 35mm, and now it’s digital. The camera’s the same, though – people pick it up and use it, like a fountain pen. Everybody writes something with it; a check, a story, a prescription. It’s writing. And photography’s the same – it’s democratic in that way. Everyone can use it, but not everyone makes art. I think what’s happened digitally, is that there’s been this huge explosion of access to imagery because you can print them at home. Or you can put them up on flickr and share pictures this way. So it both expands the market, and not necessarily makes it that much more interesting or better or artful, but it brings more and more people into it, so there’s a greater possibility of someone discovering their voice.”
Personally I have shot both digital and film– and intrinsically there is not one medium that is “better” than the other. At the end of the day, you are still making pictures.
Personally I prefer the slowness of film over digital, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is like that for everybody. I know tons of street photographers who shoot digitally who create phenomenal images (even guys shooting with iPhones).
The great thing about digital cameras is how much it has opened the door to the rest of the world to capture. Whereas photography used to be quite elitist and difficult to start (having to know how to shoot fully manually)
now anyone with an iPhone can just capture beautiful moments.
So don’t worry so much about the medium of photography
just focus on creating images that inspire and tell stories about the world.
12. On composition
Meyerowitz in a video interview also gives great philosophical tips when it comes to composition in street photography.
Meyerowitz first starts off about the philosophy of “the frame” in a camera:
“One of the first things that every photographer learns is that there is a frame. There is a fixed frame. And most people have a fixed frame, a 35mm for the most part.
So how do you make your work different from anybody else’s? So it is what you put in the frame and its where you cut the rest of the 360 degrees in all axes we’re looking at. A spinning web of 360 degree arches—and you’re moving this frame around.”
He especially shares the importance in photography is what to include (and what to exclude):
“And early on I sensed the power of that in this regard: when you put your frame up to your eye, the world continues outside the frame. So what you put in and what you leave out are what determines the meaning or potential of your photograph. But you must continue to keep in mind that there are plenty of stuff off-stage. And what bearing might the rest of the off-stage have on this?”
In this regard, he shares how a rangefinder has helped him shoot in the streets– as it helped him better see what happened outside of the frame:
“So one of the things about the Leica is special is that the Leica has the window here—so when you put your camera to your eye with an SLR you block the world. But when you put the rangefinder to your eye, you are seeing the world and the context at the same time. A rangefinder is the finer instrument than an SLR – than an SLR which makes you only one-eyed. So you are binocular—so understanding that the world continues outside of the frame, it leaves certain things ambiguous or unspoken. But impinging upon.”
Meyerowitz says that street photography isn’t just about capturing one single subject or moment– but creating meaning through putting unrelated things together and creating a context:
“I believe that recognition and the power of the frame to put disparate, unrelated things together—suddenly this guy who was going on his business doing all this stuff and this woman with her poodle—they have no knowledge of each other. But in your frame, it is context.
I’m going to go on record here—when I think about my photographs, I understand that my interest all along has not been in identifying a singular thing. But in photographing the relationship between things. The unspoken relationships, the tacit relationship—all of these variables are there if you choose to see in this way. But if you choose to only make objects out of singular things you will end up shooting the arrow into the bull’s-eye all the time, and you will get copies of objects in space.”
Meyerowitz expands on the importance of relationships in his images:
“I didn’t want copies of objects—I wanted the ephemeral connections between unrelated things to vibrate. And if my pictures work at all, at their best—they are suggesting these tenuous relationships. And that fragility is what is so human about them. And I think its what is in the ‘romantic tradition’—it is a form of humanism that says we’re all part of this together. I’m not just a selector of objects.
And there are plenty photographers who are great—but only work in the object-reality frame of reference. They collect things. And I don’t see myself as a collector. That’s how I’m different from others—its not a judgment, but a sense of my own identity. For me the play is always in the potential. It’s like magnetism.”
In photography you have a frame– and you decide what to include in the frame and what not to include in the frame. And this can be changed depending on how close you get to your subject, how much you crouch down, what angle you shoot from, and how you orient and frame your camera.
I think as a key thing, it is more important to know what to exclude from your frame (rather than what to include).
Meyerowitz also shares the importance of creating context and meaning through photos by adding multiple elements. I think personally one of the weaknesses in my photography is that they are too focused on a single subject. My more interesting photos tend to be when I create some sort of comparison, juxtaposition, or contrast with multiple elements in the frame.
So when you are out on the streets, realize all your subjects don’t know that they are in your same frame. But think about fun and novel ways you can put them together– to create an extra layer of meaning through the relationships in your frame.
In this one article alone I cannot possibly share all of the wisdom and philosophies of Joel Meyerowitz. There is a wealth of information of him online, in forms of interviews and videos. I have tried my best to share my personal favorite resources in the links below for you to continue your own personal self-directed learning.
However I think we can all learn from Joel’s passion not only for photography– but for life, society, and humanity. He has photographed for over 50 years, and it is his passion for the streets and documenting life that keeps bringing him back.
Even though he has been shooting for that long– even he doesn’t have all the answers to photography. Even at age 75, Meyerowitz is still is trying to discover why he photographs– and it is a burning question that has persisted to this day. But he hasn’t given up– and like he said– “I am getting there.”
Joel Meyerowitz – ‘What you put in the frame determines the photograph’
Joel Meyerowitz: Life on the street never ceased to amaze me
Leica Portrait: Joel Meyerowitz
Joel Meyerowitz: Street Photography (1981) – Hour-long documentary
Visions and Images: Joel Meyerowitz, 1981
Joel Meyerowitz Shooting the Streets of NYC
JOEL MEYEROWITZ – Retrospective
Below are interviews with Joel Meyerowitz I recommend– in which I cited quotes for this article:
- Joel Meyerowitz- Icon with a Leica
- Joel Meyerowitz: ‘brilliant mistakes … amazing accidents’ [The Guardian]
- From Cape Light, conversational interviews with Bruce MacDonald, dean of the Museum School, July 22-26, 1977
- INTERVIEW: “Interview with Joel Meyerowitz – Creating A Sense of Place” (1990)
- Joel Meyerowitz Interview (Part 1) [2point8]
- Joel Meyerowitz Interview (Part 2) [2point8]
Books by Joel Meyerowitz
Meyerowitz has done many books, but the ones below are the ones I would recommend:
Cape Light: Color Photographs by Joel Meyerowitz: ~$25-50 USD (used)
Joel Meyerowitz’s seminal book on shooting with his 8×10 large-format color in Cape Cod. Not “street photography” — but a must-have book for any color enthusiast.
Joel Meyerowitz (55s) – Phaidon: ~$12 USD (new)
An affordable book by Phaidon, with 55 images by Meyerowitz presented in chronological order. A great introduction to his work.
Joel Meyerowitz – Aftermath: ~$29 USD (new)
Historically, Meyerowitz’s most important work– documenting Ground Zero in NYC after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Phenomenal and emotionally powerful images.
Bystander: A History of Street Photography: ~$65 USD (used)
If you are a history buff, this is the single most important book on the history of street photography. Meyerowitz worked closely with Colin Westerbeck to put together this incredibly important resource. You can see the lessons I’ve learned from the book here.
For the hardcore Meyerowitz fan, this is an immense 2-volume series of his life-long work including around 600 images (published and unpublished). It also includes a signed print– but note, it is extremely expensive.
All photos in this article are copyrighted by Joel Meyerowitz.