You don’t have to be Jewish to be a great photographer but it helps, according to one of the greatest. Multiple award-winner Joel Meyerowitz, most famous for his post-apocalyptic images of Ground Zero, salutes his 20th-century colleagues when we discuss a book about his work that is published this week.
“Almost every photographer I knew was a Jew… so crazy how Jews, who don’t use the graven image as a religious or cultural metaphor, were making photographs,” he says, citing Diane Arbus, Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Jay Meisel — “you can go on and on.
“I feel the experiences I had growing up in New York in the 1940s and 1950s, when Jews were finally assimilated enough to assert their characteristics, is something one sees in the art of the ’50s and ’60s.”
In the 1960s, Meyerowitz gave up advertising to devote his life to capturing the unexpected on the streets of New York: “My sensitivities and sympathies, my cultural and moral stance, were informed through a kind of Jewish passport — a way of looking at the world and seeing characteristics, qualities, sentiments and emotions touched by a Jewish sympathy,” he says.
Later, his focus changed to capturing landscapes suffused with colour. He and his wife Maggie, a writer, had been commissioned to write and illustrate a book on Tuscany, when 9/11 happened.
His shocking images of New York in the aftermath of the attack were shown at the Venice Biennale before touring America. He spent nine months on the site, meeting detectives, firemen, engineers, architects, workers and foremen. He has praised the “comradeship and sense of purpose,” among everyone working at Ground Zero, and has said that New York, his home city, will never feel the same again.
When Meyerowitz did get back to Tuscany, it felt like coming back to sanity. “It really was an antidote to the pain and noise and chaos of Ground Zero, where I spent every day for nine months.”
The couple subsequently moved to the Tuscan countryside. “What we found was a real earthy, nourishing quality to the life of Tuscany even though the rest of the world was being challenged by terrorism.
“They were still doing the same things they had done for 2,000 years — tending the fields, managing their livestock, growing vegetables… it gave us a sense of continuity… a feeling there is goodness in the world.”
At 80, Meyerowitz has found an unexpected new direction — the master of fast-moving street photography is now engrossed in still life, capturing objects which don’t move at all.
“In a blistering summer when you could not go outside in the middle of the day, we were in this wonderful, cool farmhouse where I had a studio with a skylight in the roof. I started pushing objects around to see if their quality, their spirit, could be drawn out of them — things of interest rather than objects of beauty.”
It’s a preoccupation that comes with age, he thinks: “Maybe there’s a reason older artists often make paintings about the seasons or skulls; history has shown us all things come to an end. However ripe and juicy they are, they all dessicate, dry up and blow away.
“I find myself less interested in going out on the street now because frankly I’ve seen it all my life and have worked on it for 50 years. I am more content to sit and handle these inanimate objects.
“It may be said with a Jewish perspective that I’m taking a last long look; soaking up the beauty of everyday nature, the change of the seasons, my relationship to these objects and ways of making them dance for me. I’ve trusted my instincts, which are to be awakened from within and have something proposed to me from my kishkes.”
Joel Meyerowitz: Where I Find Myself: A Lifetime Retrospective is published by Laurence King.