Published in Artforum, January 2013. The second part of this exhibition is on view at Howard Greenberg Gallery until January 5.
The first of a two-part survey of Joel Meyerowitz’s fifty-year career as a photographer, this exhibition presented nearly four dozen color and black-and-white prints of varying sizes. Today, Meyerowitz is known for large-format landscape images in often saturated, emotionally resonant colors, a vein of his work that had its spectacular debut with the 1977 exhibition of his “Cape Light” photographs at Witkin Gallery in New York; the book of that series is a milestone in the history of color art photography. By including no photographs shot later than 1976, this exhibition offered viewers a chance to reacquaint themselves with the Meyerowitz images largely eclipsed by his later renown. The first and most obvious lesson is that Meyerowitz was actively using color film not only well before the large-format pictures that made his reputation, but also before color prints were widely accepted by galleries and museums.
The second is that, from the early 1960s, when he had a formative encounter with Robert Frank, through the mid-’70s, Meyerowitz was a street photographer, capturing intimate, humorous, and poignant moments with a handheld camera. He worked mainly in New York, where he lived, but ventured to other parts of the country and to Mexico, Spain, and France, among other international destinations. The earliest photographs presented here suggest the artist’s impish side and demonstrate his eye for incongruities, though his humor cuts several ways. The black-and-white photograph New York City, Times Square, 1963, offers an immediate laugh: The face of a theater-box-office worker, centered in the frame, is completely obscured by the small porthole through which one would talk with her. Two color images spark more complicated reactions. New York City, 1963, taken from the driver’s door of a curbside convertible, depicts a man holding a woman aloft, about to place her in the backseat. Yet his mouth doesn’t match the grin of the man enjoying the unfolding scene; it reads as a grimace, and the placement of his hand underneath—and around—the woman’s neck seems menacing, almost violent. Mexico, 1963, taken at what appears to be an amusement park, likewise provokes a double take. One’s eyes quickly register the strange sight of a swaddled baby resting, seemingly unattended, in a blue-painted wooden box. Then one notices the air rifles lined up on a nearby counter. Sure, they’re for a shoot-the-duck game, but the sense of foreboding is enhanced by a second wooden box, its coffinlike lid closed.
The tension between obvious punch lines and ambiguity continues in photographs made throughout the decade. The latter is epitomized by Fallen Man, Paris, 1967, which offers no explanation for the subject sprawled on the pavement; a seemingly nonplussed passerby in the foreground glances over his shoulder, as if unsure whether to help. On the other hand, Miami Beach, Florida, 1968, in which a rotund man in a swimsuit stands in profile beneath a passing Goodyear blimp, is evidence of Meyerowitz’s quick wit. But the image raises other questions. It is one of three black-and-white prints paired with nearly identical images taken in color, indicating that Meyerowitz was working in both modes simultaneously. In a new essay, the artist has claimed that color presents this photograph’s joke “more fully.” He continues, “I need to see the color of his shorts, that belly, the silver of the blimp . . . .” Yet what is to be made of the fact that the color image, which was snapped first, was not printed until many years later, while the black-and-white version was printed (and presumably exhibited) at the time it was taken? The lag time between the act of photographing and the act of printing these images suggests the third lesson of this show: Instead of printing what he felt, and what side-by-side comparison reveals, to be the superior image, he printed the one that had a better chance of being shown. Despite his early and consistent advocacy of color film, even Meyerowitz might have felt constrained by the art world’s condescension to his preferred medium.