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Taking His Time: A Look Back at 50 Years of Joel Meyerowitz’s Photographs

The 1939 edition of Robert Frost’s Collected Poems contained an introductory essay that wasn’t in the first edition. In that article, entitled “The Figure a Poem Makes,” Frost wrote, “Like giants we are always hurling experience ahead of us to pave the future with against the day when we may want to strike a line of purpose across it for somewhere.”

Though he didn’t know it at the time, acclaimed photographer Joel Meyerowitz began hurling his own experiences ahead of him in 1962. While working as an art director at an advertising agency, Meyerowitz met photographer Robert Frank who was shooting a clothing brochure. Meyerowitz watched Frank move while he photographed, and he had an incredible epiphany. On the way back to the office, Meyerowitz walked the streets of New York for more than an hour. “I felt like I was reading the text of the street in a way that I never had before,” he says.

When he returned to the office, Meyerowitz told his boss, Harry Gordon, that he was quitting. He wanted to be a photographer. Gordon then asked him a crucial question: did he have a camera? The answer was no, so Gordon lent him a 35mm camera and Meyerowitz embarked on the great journey of his life.

Over the next 50 years Meyerowitz exhibited at the MoMA, received a Guggenheim Fellowship, published books and taught photography at Cooper Union. But there was always one place where you had a chance to run into him and become immortalized in his gargantuan body of work. Meyerowitz is, first and foremost, a street photographer. Though he has shot street scenes in France, Germany, Atlanta, Ohio and dozens of places in between, the chaotic streets of New York City make up his favorite studio. “Fifth Avenue is my boulevard,” he says. “No street in the world, and I’ve traveled a lot, has for me the kind of sexy, improvisatory collisions between elegance and lowness. You can see bike messengers and models, billionaires and hustlers, and it’s all out there every day.”

That first day with Robert Frank served as more than just a catalytic inspiration; it laid the foundation for how Meyerowitz would record street life. He bobs and weaves through the throngs of people, searching for that serendipitous moment that becomes a great photograph. “The way someone makes a gesture on the street or the way couples react to each other or the simultaneity of two things happening at the same time and the relationship between them,” are some of the elements he looks for. “It was the wonder of human nature and this incredible capacity for things to keep showing themselves to me,” he says.

Image: Joel Meyerowitz: Taking My Time (Phaidon Press, November 2012)

Phaidon Press

Joel Meyerowitz: Taking My Time (Phaidon Press. Limited Edition including signed print, November 2012)

When he is shooting on the street, there isn’t much time to contemplate each moment. “Photography takes place in a fraction of a second,” Meyerowitz says. “There isn’t a lot of time to think about things. You have to hone your instinct. You learn to hone that skill and timing so you’re in the right place at the right time.” Although he has made images that have moved audiences for decades, that has never been his true motivation. “I’m not out there to make another ‘great picture,’” he says. “I’m really out there to feel what it feels like to be alive and conscious in that moment. In a sense, the record of my photographs is a record of moments of consciousness and awareness that have come to me in my life.”

This year, the 50th anniversary of when he first took up the camera, Meyerowitz compiled hundreds of his favorite images for the two-volume collection, Joel Meyerowitz: Taking My Time (Phaidon Press). The project isn’t just a greatest hits collection. “It’s easy to make a book of your very best things and not necessarily have a narrative arc,” he says. “I wanted to stick strictly to the chronology as precisely as I could and show my own development.” The result is a visual biography of an artist who for half a century has snapped moments–fractions of seconds–and preserved them forever. Each tells a unique story that Meyerowitz has used to pave his life. Through the images of people and places and tiny moments in time, one can see a remarkable line of purpose he has created, one that runs fluidly across the experience of his life.

Joel Meyerowitz is a New York City-based photographer. Beginning Nov. 2, his work will be displayed in a two-part solo show at the Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York.

LightBox previously featured Meyerowitz’s photographs of the destruction and reconstruction at Ground Zero.

Laurent Chéhère’s Flying Houses

Inspired by the 1956 short French childrens film Le Ballon Rouge, or The Red Balloon, Laurent Chhres part analog, part digital images of floating houses are at once a charming, imaginative take on Paris, and also a wistful vision of dreams deferred. carrera de fotografia . The work will be shown from Oct. 25 to Dec. 8 at Galerie Paris-Beijing in Paris.

Before transitioning to photography, Chhre was an art director at a French advertising agency. He first saw Le Ballon Rouge when he was young, and upon revisiting it recently, described it as a merveille [wonder] of poetry. In 1960, TIME Magazine named its director, Albert Lamorisse, probably the most original moviemaker in France.

The film stars the directors 6-year-old son Pascal as an inquisitive, adventurous Parisian tot who discovers a bright red balloon in the street one day. Lamorisses Paris is a city drained of color, still suffering from the fallout of the war, populated by stern grownups and bullying children. It is against this surprisingly grim backdrop that our story takes place. The boy discovers that the balloon is not simply a shiny, bouncy thing to be led about on a string but rather a living, expressive, mischievous character unto itself. Without the use of CGI, the director is able to coax an amazing performance out of latex and helium, and the boy and the balloon become fast friends. Ultimately, the adventure story that ensues is an ode to possibility, dreams and escape.

Mary Evans/Ronald GrantEverett Collection

A scene from “The Red Balloon.”

Chhres world has a similar color palette of greys, blues and browns. And it too shares a dose of the fantastical: the main charactersin this case buildings he digitally constructed from architectural details photographed around Parisappear to float in the sky. But something is different. Unlike the playful balloon with its dancing string, these floating objects appear settled, as if stasis has overtaken them and age has crept in.

Notes from workaday life appear throughout the photo seriestelevision antennae, For Sale signs, McDonalds and graffiti. Laundry appears in two of the nine images. Chhre, who turned 40 this year, has replaced the balloons dancing string with electrical wires, which both sustain the houses and also tie them in place. The one exception is a grim, grey-blue brick house with prison-like windows. Here, the wires have snapped, a fire rages in the second story, the inhabitants escape ladder has broken and tumbles out of the frame. Resting by the window, silhouetted by the blaze, is a birdcage, about to be engulfed in flames.

Albert Lamorisse’s film has a happy ending; the ending of Chhres meditation on middle-age life remains uncertain.

Laurent Chhre is a photographer based in Paris. More of his work is available on his website.

Laurent Chéhère’s Flying Houses

Inspired by the 1956 short French childrens film Le Ballon Rouge, or The Red Balloon, Laurent Chhres part analog, part digital images of floating houses are at once a charming, imaginative take on Paris, and also a wistful vision of dreams deferred. The work will be shown from Oct. 25 to Dec. 8 at Galerie Paris-Beijing in Paris.

Before transitioning to photography, Chhre was an art director at a French advertising agency. He first saw Le Ballon Rouge when he was young, and upon revisiting it recently, described it as a merveille [wonder] of poetry. In 1960, TIME Magazine named its director, Albert Lamorisse, probably the most original moviemaker in France.

The film stars the directors 6-year-old son Pascal as an inquisitive, adventurous Parisian tot who discovers a bright red balloon in the street one day. Lamorisses Paris is a city drained of color, still suffering from the fallout of the war, populated by stern grownups and bullying children. It is against this surprisingly grim backdrop that our story takes place. The boy discovers that the balloon is not simply a shiny, bouncy thing to be led about on a string but rather a living, expressive, mischievous character unto itself. Without the use of CGI, the director is able to coax an amazing performance out of latex and helium, and the boy and the balloon become fast friends. Ultimately, the adventure story that ensues is an ode to possibility, dreams and escape.

Mary Evans/Ronald GrantEverett Collection

A scene from “The Red Balloon.”

Chhres world has a similar color palette of greys, blues and browns. And it too shares a dose of the fantastical: the main charactersin this case buildings he digitally constructed from architectural details photographed around Parisappear to float in the sky. But something is different. carrera de fotografia . Unlike the playful balloon with its dancing string, these floating objects appear settled, as if stasis has overtaken them and age has crept in.

Notes from workaday life appear throughout the photo seriestelevision antennae, For Sale signs, McDonalds and graffiti. Laundry appears in two of the nine images. Chhre, who turned 40 this year, has replaced the balloons dancing string with electrical wires, which both sustain the houses and also tie them in place. The one exception is a grim, grey-blue brick house with prison-like windows. Here, the wires have snapped, a fire rages in the second story, the inhabitants escape ladder has broken and tumbles out of the frame. Resting by the window, silhouetted by the blaze, is a birdcage, about to be engulfed in flames.

Albert Lamorisse’s film has a happy ending; the ending of Chhres meditation on middle-age life remains uncertain.

Laurent Chhre is a photographer based in Paris. More of his work is available on his website.