Honorary Fellow Joel Meyerowitz is a pioneer of street photography whose images resonate across cultural and national boundaries. We bring you an edited extract from his book, Joel Meyerowitz: How I Make Photographs, in which he shares some of the secrets of his low-key and highly effective approach to capturing human life.
Once you have a camera in your hand you have a licence to see. And seeing is what photography is all about. You learn about yourself and the world around you. In the 55 years I’ve been making photographs, photography has taught me everything I know about the world and about myself.
When I began, I didn’t even have a camera. I was an art director at a small agency in New York. I had designed a little brochure and my boss hired a photographer to make the photographs for the brochure. I spent an hour and a half watching this photographer work. I didn’t know at the time that he was Robert Frank, one of the most important photographers of the 20th century.
But in that hour and a half, the things he did were so astonishing, as simple as they were, that when I left the location and went out on the street the world was alive to me in a way I had never before experienced. Every gesture, every incident on the streets, seemed to have meaning. By the time I made my way back to the office I realised I had to quit my job and follow that instinct of wanting to be a photographer and to see the way the world showed itself to me.
This is an edited extract from Joel Meyerowitz: How I Make Photographs, published on 3 September 2020 by Laurence King Publishing at £14.99. joelmeyerowitz.com
Own the street
You have a right to be in public spaces, so shoot with confidence
‘New York City’, 1974, by Joel Meyerowitz HonFRPS
I’ve been asked many times: “How do you work on the street? I’m afraid to work on the street, I’m too shy, I can’t take pictures of strangers because I shouldn’t really be taking their picture.” People have a kind of mythic fear about photographing in public spaces. My feeling about the street, and street photography, is that the street is ours. Once you enter a public space, everyone and everything there is fair game.
So how do you go about making a street photograph? First of all, you must have an appetite for life on the street. The street is chaos. If you are comfortable in chaos, you’ll find your way. When you’re on the street it’s important to be able to see across the entire frame. You own the territory that you see when you look through the viewfinder of your camera. One of the most interesting qualities of street photography is making connections between things that are not related, because when you put the frame around them you create a new relationship.
One of the great fears that everyone has is that if they take a picture of someone on the street that person will be insulted, or will attack them. But the fact is a simple smile and being good humoured goes a long way. So if you’re on the street and everything you see when you’re taking pictures makes you smile, you’re already a softer, more approachable, more human person. People won’t feel negative towards you. But if you’re standing there with a 200mm telephoto lens that you’re waving in someone’s direction and they catch sight of you, they’re going to be on their guard and maybe even angry. They’re going to say: “Hey, get out of my way.”
Being quick and being happy and excited about what you’re doing sends out an aura of “this person’s OK. I don’t have anything to worry about”. What is important is intuition, being positive, having a sense of humour and being in the right place at the right time. Always have your camera turned on and its lens cap off. Touch the button frequently, if it’s a digital camera, so that it’s always ready to shoot. All these things are part of your basic preparation for being a photographer on the street.
Light as subject
Draw inspiration from light and shadow
‘Dairy Land, Provincetown, Massachusetts’, 1976, by Joel Meyerowitz HonFRPS
Observation. Really, that’s what we do as photographers. We’re observers. We’re like a telescope looking at the world. Our observations give us an appetite, subjects, direction. Observation is the guiding force behind making photographs. It is not enough simply to observe, however; what matters is the quality of your observations. It’s all about being attentive and aware, and opening up your mind so that you see the light everywhere that you photograph.
‘Spain’, 1983, by Joel Meyerowitz HonFRPS
Say you enter a place and you’re looking around. You don’t see anything that speaks to you, yet you feel good being there. As you look around, you realise there’s a beam of light coming from a high window. It crosses the floor, and in that beam of light there’s a little bit of dust floating. Suddenly you realise the most important thing in the whole space is that little beam of light, and in a few minutes it’s going to disappear. The moment you recognise it, light has become your subject.