I’ve been a student of art history practically my whole life, since receiving a fortuitous gift set of Ernest Raboff, Art for Children books as a child, but my knowledge of photography and photographers has long been a glaring weak spot. So, for the past decade, as I’ve been teaching myself photography, I’ve been reading monographs and studying images of the masters alongside my manuals, tutorials and technical books. Frankly, my self-guided tour of the art of photography has been been rather scattershot. I become aware of a photographer whose work appeals to me, and I go deep, well aware that I’ve overlooked so many great ones along the way. It’s like reading history out of order; immediately following the fresh delight I have at a new-to-me discovery, there are epiphanies because I am finally able to mentally place an important photographer’s work into the greater continuum.
This summer, in advance of a London retrospective, I started reading a lot about Joel Meyerowitz. The name was familiar, but his images were new to me and pure revelation. His color almost vibrates; his compositions are often quite challenging – there is really complex geometry at play; he displays a generous and finely honed comic timing and, while all of that is certainly enough to make great images, permeating everything, for me, is the palpable sense I feel upon looking at his photos of his delight in perceiving and making them.
More than any other photographer I’ve studied the effect of his images on me is what I’d love to achieve in my own photography. And so, I did what I do. I started studying. I searched the internet for interviews with and articles about him, read his recent photography book for children, Seeing Things, A Kid’s Guide to Looking at Photographs, which while accessible for children, still offers plenty of insight for adults on the viewing and making of photographs, and I started tracking down copies of his out of print books.
One concept I was particularly taken with was the challenge Meyerowitz created for himself in making what he termed “field photographs.” These were anti-minimalist images designed deliberately without a focal point. Every element in the frame, including color, played an equally important compositional role in the resulting picture. At the time, many didn’t understand them. They were seen at best as confusing and at worst unintelligible in the eyes of many critics. But when I look at them, I find myself immersed in, for instance, the 1970’s era 5th Avenue crowd – I actually feel a part of throng – not as if observing it from my distance of space and time. They are transportational, vivid and brilliant.
Over the past few months I’ve been trying to make images in this style. It’s so different from the way I usually look to compose a frame, that I have found it tremendously challenging. The true masters can make the difficult appear effortless, and I feel like you can see my struggle in these images, but it’s a good struggle – the learning, stretching kind that is akin to building new muscle, and even if I never achieve it, I plan to continue trying.
Keep your eyes wide open,