The sculpted, rolling hills of vineyards and olive trees were almost invisible in the early morning air. Local farmers stood modestly among golden waves of ripe wheat. This seductive landscape was the antithesis of the twisted metal urban space that had been the workplace for Joel Meyerowitz for eight months after the events of 9/11.
"It was like balm to my eyes," said Meyerowitz, who had just completed his self-assignment as the official photographer of the Ground Zero cleanup. He was to have embarked on the Tuscany book project in September 2001, but after the attack he changed his plans. He was finally able to make his first working visit back to Tuscany in January 2002. It was different this time. He saw its beauty with new eyes. "I wanted to put something good back into the world," he said. The result of a year's work, throughout the four seasons is Tuscany: Inside the Light," co-authored with his wife, Maggie Barrett. Released last November, the book captures the obscure and less seen cycles of life in this place of bounty. In its minimalist simplicity, the book describes the harmony of life there. It is about families and townspeople, the grace of planting and harvesting, planting, and caring for the land.Spring Vineyard, Passing Storm © Joel Meyerowitz, Courtesy Ariel Meyerowitz Gallery, NY White Road © Joel Meyerowitz, Courtesy Ariel Meyerowitz Gallery, NY
THE ART OF IT
Thought goes into every shot Meyerowitz takes and he literally will take one photograph of what he wants to capture, especially when using the large-format camera. Whether it's an image of a chair in the landscape, a farmer standing on the newly tilled earth, or the multicolor tapestry of farmland, a photo should be as informational as it is aesthetic.
Thus, a shot of an elderly man on his bicycle almost riding off the edge of the photograph seen in relation to a group of youths on their bikes on the street behind him is an allegory about youth and age, the continuing cycles of life, generation to generation.
To create those photos, Meyerowitz used his large-format 8x10 Deardorff view camera, his camera of choice for landscape/fine art photos because of the description and depth it affords.
"It allows the viewer to see through me, that I am standing on the earth on this cold winter day or in spring looking at twilight. It grounds the viewer," he says. "I like to take something that looks ordinary and transfer what's there into a feeling of possibility. That's when the magic happens."The Well © Joel Meyerowitz, Courtesy Ariel Meyerowitz Gallery, NY A September Day. © Joel Meyerowitz, Courtesy Ariel Meyerowitz Gallery, NY Castle Woods in Mist © Joel Meyerowitz, Courtesy Ariel Meyerowitz Gallery, NY Autumn - Last Light © Joel Meyerowitz, Courtesy Ariel Meyerowitz Gallery, NY
Meyerowitz is drawn to and soaks up the imperfect, the obscure, and the slightly offbeat. In one of the Tuscany photos, he transforms a field of dead sunflowers (bottom right), heads bowed, brown-stalked and drooping, like an army of the dead, into a work of art.
In a recent radio interview he described his instinct at that moment: "That photo is one of the darkest and maybe even most daring pictures in the book because it is anti-beauty; it is not about the familiar gloss that sunflowers make. It is about the reality of the life cycle."
With his Deardorff over his shoulder as he greets the world, Meyerowitz evaluates other important aspects of his next shot: the time of day, the meaning of the place, and the quality of the color. He only uses ambient light because he believes "time is light," so in low-light situations he may expose his film, Kodak Portra 160, from one to five minutes. "That film is brilliant," he buoyed. "It can see in the darkness and beyond."
THE ASTONISHED ART DIRECTOR
There would never have been landscapes taken with such ease or simplicity, minimalist mazes devoid of pretension and postcard qualities, had it not been for Robert Frank. An art director in 1962, Meyerowitz was on a shoot with Frank. "What I saw astonished me," he recalls. "Robert Frank overturned all I knew about photography. I thought it meant holding something still. But Frank photographed while he was moving, taking a moment in time, without freezing that moment beforehand."
This broke the bounds of photography for him. As quick as the shutter clicked in the first photograph on that momentous day in New York City, Meyerowitz quit his job as an art director, bought a Leica camera, and went down to the streets taking photographs of everyday life. He never looked back. He finally knew photography was about ideas.
LIGHTSMITH AT WORK
In his studio, four full-time staffers take care of business: a manager and director, who work with publishers, art directors, and on the website; a project manager, responsible for circulating his exhibits to institutions and museums and organizing commissions; and an archive manager who organizes, scans, prints, and sends out orders.
His website, www.joelmeyerowitz.com, is essentially a resource, but people do purchase photos from the site. Meyerowitz also does direct mailings twice a year and has email blasts sent frequently to tens of thousands of art directors, art buyers, colleges, museums, businesses, and interior design studios.