“Everything But the Meaning”: A Review of Joel Meyerowitz, Seeing Things: A Kid’s Guide to Looking at Photographs (New York: Aperture, 2016)

August 14th, 2016  |  Published in *, Summer 2016

In the past 35 or so years, Joel Meyerowitz has seen more than a dozen monographs of his photographs published, and has contributed pictures and text to others. He has become known by now, more or less successively, as a street photographer (one of the earliest to have worked extensively in color), a landscape photographer, a capturer of the American scene interested in the way it takes both elegance and vulgarity to take the pulse of some of its best-loved locales (perhaps like an upscale Robert Frank), a city photographer, a devoted chronicler of the aftermath of 9/11, an interpreter of the pleasures and challenges of the expatriate life, and most recently, an artist whose interest in material culture has led him to explore the still life tradition. Now he has written Seeing Things: A Kid’s Guide to Looking at Photographs with a target audience of third to seventh graders. It is a compact, well-designed book, with thirty short essays, each averaging somewhere around a dozen sentences, about thirty photographs. If there was a sequence to their arrangement, it escaped me, though there is no question that Meyerowitz keeps returning to a series of issues on the borderline between aesthetics and ethics in which he has a considerable interest and a good deal to say. It is not my interest or within my expertise to comment on the age-appropriateness of the book’s contents, though I will confess to thinking that some of the sentences were pretty long for a third grader to follow, and that there were surprisingly few things that he was asking his young readers to actually do. The individual essays were well and sometimes intensely written and offered startlingly good readings of almost every picture taken up. If his readings lean a little heavily towards the formalist perspective, it is also true that he has a great eye for formalistic detail and is patient in teasing out some very suggestive subtleties about design. I ended up feeling sure that Meyerowitz would be a great guy to see an exhibition with.

Like any anthology, the book calls attention to the author’s principles of selection, though they are sometimes a little elusive. Because the book is directed towards young people, Meyerowitz had the ability to choose to include as many or as few old chestnuts as he wished; he would have had few preconceptions to overcome. Though many of the pictures are fairly well known, many are by less well-known photographers or are less well-known pictures by familiar artists. What’s not included in the book? Though Meyerowitz notes on his opening page “How lucky we are to be living in an age when making a photograph is available to everyone with a smartphone or a camera,” there are in fact no iPhone pictures or selfies, no disposable pictures or pictures taken by kids the same age as his target audience. (Pictures of young people are not the same as pictures by them.) There are, in general, no vernacular photographs—no snapshots, postcards, polaroids, or photobooth portraits. There are no representatives of some of the many subspecialties in photography, such as ethnological pictures or medical pictures or scientific specimens or forensic evidence. There are no topographical pictures or photographs from the age of exploration. There’s almost nothing in the book that’s old: only one picture is from the 19th century and only three are pre-1950. (Presumably this is a decision connected to perceptions of the tastes of the intended audience.) But even within the genres well represented in modern and contemporary photographs, there are no still lifes, there is no journalism, there are few landscapes and few portraits. There are practically no examples of the many photographers today who arrange and construct things in order to photograph them.

 

Henri Cartier Bresson, “Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare” (1932)

What there is lots of, broadly speaking, is street photography. I think it’s fair to say that for Meyerowitz, the ideals of photography as an art and as an activity are epitomized in the work of the street photographer. Perhaps a better title for the book might have been A Young Person’s Guide to the Pleasures of Being a Street Photographer. For Meyerowitz, these pleasures are very real, and go a long way towards explaining what a photographer is and does, and why it’s a thing worth doing, both in terms of making excellent pictures but also in terms of deeply enriching anyone’s relationship to the world. The first picture in the book, and probably the best known, is Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare” (1932). After relishing, as so many have, the deliciousness of the captured moment (“the futile jump in the air to avoid getting wet”), Meyerowitz goes on to notice the poster with an image of a leaping ballet dancer attached to the nearby wall. And then he goes on to point out what is less commonly noticed: “Near the poster on the far side of the fence, a man is looking in just as Cartier-Bresson is. Except Cartier-Bresson had a camera and made the photograph.” Street photography is about being there, being ready, and being involved. In his comments on Atget’s “Organ-Grinder” (1898-99), Meyerowitz proposes that Atget’s great gift was that he “understood the theater of the streets and the precise timing of gestures,” and imagines the interaction between artist and subjects: “I am sure Atget asked them to sing for him….”

In Meyerowitz’s year-long blog “Once More Around the Sun: A Photograph Every Day for a Year”—a thoughtful and thought-provoking project he completed just before the publication of Seeing Things—he writes about a moment he captured outside a store in Florence: “this little scene unfolded in all of 5 seconds. And then it was gone. As if it had never existed. The street is like that. It gives and it goes away. My Leica is always ready.” In Seeing Things, in writing about a photograph by Melanie Einzig, Meyerowitz distills the essential exercise of being a street photographer: “Try standing on a corner, or anywhere that you like to hand out, and just watch what strange juxtapositions the world brings to you.” Being a street photographer requires a combination of activity and passivity, of aggressiveness and grace. As he writes in “One More Around the Sun,” “If you accept a gift as something unexpected coming your way, like a photograph often does, coming out of nowhere and landing right in front of you. That’s a fine way to live.” The street photographer—whether or not a picture is actually of people on the street—lives by a complex code, a code that certainly includes humility. There is also something opportunistic about it, something competitive, something appropriative. It is possible to see it as a form of cultural colonialism, an issue that was raised in Brian Sholis’s 2014 memorable “Eyes on the Street” exhibit at the Cincinnati Art Museum, which called attention, among many other things, to the connections between street photography and the world of surveillance.

The ethos of capturing the moment means, naturally, that there will be “missed opportunities,” but we never actually see them. Having the chance, for example, to look at contact sheets could certainly make clear what makes one moment decisive and other moments less so. Throughout Meyerowitz’s book, the emphasis is on the photographer rather than the photograph. But even there, it is not about developing a suite of skills that define the craftsman. In Seeing Things, it is as if no cropping ever occurred, and no darkroom work or photoshopping of any sort went on. What tends to matter most is that a photograph gives its viewer a chance to look through the eyes of a photographer: somebody was there, somebody saw this. You could, too. With its emphasis on the ethos of the street photographer, the book not only demonstrates ways to see; it advocates for ways to be. In his headnote, Meyerowitz speaks of the “kinds of tools that photographers use,” and they are not cameras or lenses or editing programs; they are “intuition, timing, point of view, a willingness to wait, and the courage to move closer.” The finished photograph is likely to reflect the kinetic investment made by the photographer, and “point of view” is as likely to be about a decision about a physical posture as it is to be about a metaphysical perspective. There is something of the first responder’s sense of duty and fearlessness in Meyerowitz’s ideal photographer: “The reason,” he writes of Alex Webb’s “Children Playing in a Playground, Havana” (2000), “this is such a good photograph is that Alex Webb walked into the chaos instead of retreating from it.” Move closer.

William Eggleston, “Untitled (Los Alamos Portfolio)” (1965-74)

Moving in sometimes allows the formalist in Meyerowitz to take over, and sometimes that can be a fabulous gift. Writing about William Eggleston’s “Untitled (Los Alamos portfolio)” (1965-74), he notes that “as familiar as a bottle of soda is, here it is presented as a luminous, floating, double-image of itself—the bottle stands on its own elongated reflection.” Meyerowitz can offer what seemed to me to be brilliant intuitions, as when he suggests that, more broadly, Eggleston “looks at the world with a collector’s eye, charmed and astonished by the objects that he finds.” This photograph is as close as he gets in the whole book to a still life. But I also felt that there was perhaps an elision of the narrative that might help further bring the image into focus. How exactly did a half-consumed bottle of soda come to be sitting on the hood of that elegant, almost spotlessly clean car? Formalism can readily come at the expense of narrative and often at the expense of context. Eggleston’s decision to call this collection of his photographs the Los Alamos Portfolio is hardly a transparent or self-evident one, but even if one shouldn’t be too ready to put a finger on just what it means, the title can’t be meaningless. And awareness of context is some part of how people of every age should be encouraged to look at photographs. If it is true, as Meyerowitz writes, that one outcome of seeing the Eggleston picture would be to “remember that the most banal objects, the most commonplace afternoons, contain unexpected mystery and wonder,” it is also true that associating them with Los Alamos—with secrecy, the ultimate in scientific eliteness, and the most destructive single event that mankind has unleashed upon itself–is also part of the mystery and wonder. Similarly, there are all sorts of reasons why Meyerowitz might have chosen to include Richard Misrach’s “Battleground Point #21” (1999). How like some of the images in Meyerowitz’s own Bay/Sky series it is! It is one of the two or three most abstract pictures in the collection, one that seems most inviting for a formalist reading. But the title also calls to mind the specificity of the place, named after a spot important to Native American mythological history. And the Battleground Point pictures, part of Misrach’s immense Desert Cantos series, call to mind the photographer’s continuing interest in the visual illogic and ecological significance of places where the desert overflows with water, like his series on the Salton Sea.

Richard Misrach, “Battleground Point #21” (1999)

Context is not a self-evident part of how a photograph means, how it works, or what it means, and shouldn’t be treated that way. One of Meyerowitz’s gifts in this book–and part of what I assume to be his overall strategies in assembling it—is to require people in looking at photographs to take a second look at what on the face of it might seem mundane and undramatic. (How much instruction would we really need to take in the impact, for example, of the photograph of the explosion of the Hindenburg?) At the end of his essay about Bruce Davidson’s “New York City, Subway” (1980), Meyerowitz concludes that although “There’s no story here, no event of any significance, …the colors, the shapes, the people, and the wind, all make something out of nothing.” I take issue with whether they are really nothing; sometimes, Meyerowitz will casually note that the elements of a picture “don’t add up to a story” when they might well do exactly that. For reasons that are not evident to me, his account of Garry Winogrand’s “New York World’s Fair” (1964) is particularly interested in how the foreground and the background comment on each other at the expense of merely observing of the three central figures that there is “drama between the three girls in the middle.” And the essay says nothing at all about the calm if intense discussion going on between the interracial couple on the left, which would certainly have been a significant element of a vision of middle class life—and the World’s Fair-going public–in 1964 New York. In his account of Gordon Parks’s “Black Muslim Schoolchildren, Chicago” (1963), he is interested in Parks’s decision to see the unfolding scene at the spatial level of the child’s eye, rather than encouraging his readers to speculate about just what sort of scene might be unfolding here. There’s a whole story, for example, behind why everyone in the photograph is wearing a suit. Many other questions present themselves. Why and from what sort of place is their access being blocked? Why does it seem so ominous on the one hand and yet partly, on the other, a joke (to at least one of the children)? Just what is this moment truly about?

Garry Winogrand, “New York World’s Fair” (1964)

If the core of street photography is to capture the moment, it is also fair to ask, “Why?” Especially once we downplay the importance of photojournalism and rule out the forensic value of preserving the moment, what makes any one moment so important? In writing about Helen Levitt’s “New York City (Phone Booth)” (1980), Meyerowitz concludes that “You have to be willing to let things play out….If Levitt had gotten bored and walked away, she would have missed the best part.” That “best part” is the moment when the young boy (the son?) has decided to squeeze himself into an already crowded phone booth. The older woman (the mother?) is preoccupied but moves her body just enough to allow him to squeeze in. A younger woman (a sister?), at whose expense the extra room is being found, is the only one of the three who sees—disapprovingly—that they are being seen. The ability to capture the moment is partly a predictive thing: Meyerowitz advises his readers that “If something seems interesting to you, hang out for a moment to see if what you think could happen, actually does.” This raises questions about the nature of the narrative that such photography captures. If the subjects being photographed are enacting a narrative presupposed by the photographer, whose story is really being told? Who, if anyone, is free?

Helen Levitt, “New York City (Phone Booth)” 1980

Not, I think, by and large, the subjects of these photographs. Often it feels as if the photographer is speaking for them, putting words in their mouths and responses in their bodies, suggesting—disquietingly—a colonialist model of photography. The figures in the Paul Strand and the Mary Ellen Mark pictures are among the very few who make direct eye contact with the camera—and hence with the photographer and with us. Otherwise, it is a little startling how few of these pictures are records of collaborations. For the most part, it is hard to know how these people feel about being seen, and what they might think of the performances that the photographers have captured. (In this context, I especially missed, say, an Edward Curtis portrait that might have asked us to think about why some people might not care to be photographed at all, and what exactly a Curtis portrait portrays.) How intrinsic is it to photography that it tends to memorialize a fundamental alienation of labor? What makes one person entitled to another person’s image? This is something, by the way, that any young person who has been made to gussy up and hold still for a family photograph would have thoughts about.

The book’s final photograph is Edouard Boubat’s portrait of “Lella, Bretagne” done in post-war France. She is a young person on the move, both through space and through time, wise beyond her years with what appears to be a complicated relationship to her sexuality. After a description of Lella’s moving on from being a teenager towards being an adult, Meyerowitz writes: “Every second we experience disappears as we live it. Right now is slipping away into the past as you move forward.” Although there is a final sentence about how photography “stops time and preserves fleeting beauty,” I think that for Meyerowitz, the key is in the sentence before. It is not Lella—or in any case, it is not just Lella—who is moving through time. The photograph’s subject is certainly moving on, speeding through time, but it is especially his audience, the young people reading the book, whose temporal slippage matters even more than Lella’s.

The point of Meyerowitz’s book, and, I think, its real contribution, is its steady insistence that the person who matters most in a photograph is the one we never see: a reader of his book who might, through a sharper understanding of photography,  become a better reader of the world around her or him. Seeing Things, is a book about growing up, a how-to book, of a sort. He has no interest in the body of the book in such things as darkroom work because as soon as a young reader has seen what is worth seeing, and which could become a worthy photograph, the work this book values most is done. As he writes in his headnote, “I chose the photographs in this book with the hope that the things you discover in them will encourage you to open your eyes and mind so that you can see the world around you in a new way.” The conventions and disciplines of photography will help the readers become more self-aware: “All of these things are part of how you naturally see, but you have to become aware of them if you’re really going to see.” This, he proposes, is no more outlandish than knowing that you will have to learn a language before you can speak. As he writes about the Einzig picture, “These stories, these relationships, begin and end in a moment, and they only happen because of the camera, because of the frame. Because you stopped to look, and read.” Meyerowitz makes the claim as strongly and as simply as he can in his “Once More Around the Sun” blog: “Carrying a camera is like having a license to see.”

Photography, he is arguing, is neither more nor less than a sign of the level of commitment a young person could be willing to put out to develop a vision of herself.

Meyerowitz has hitched his exploration of thirty photographs to a young person’s quest for individual identity: “What you notice will reflect the way the world speaks to you, and only to you.” Throughout the book, he promotes an openness to the world that would make his readers into more ethical citizens of it. This is what permits photography to claim that there is an alternative to the colonial model. It is not just that the world becomes yours; you become its. As Meyerowitz writes at the end of his headnote, “You may or may not be able to change the world, but the world can certainly change you.”

And what would the world change you into? The answer seems to be that a photograph helps you to see the ways that meaning is equivocal. Though he has written frequently in the book about the importance of the photographer moving closer in decisive ways, there are, Meyerowitz implies, alternatives to the certainty of what is going to be seen. Facing the Gordon Parks picture, Meyerowitz says that “We have no idea what is happening, so the picture is a puzzle.” Though I believe that contextualizing the picture would have told us more about what is happening, I respect Meyerowitz’s sense that it’s a puzzle, because I think that he consistently finds that puzzles don’t, in fact, need to be solved to be meaningful. As he says of the one picture of his own that he included in the anthology, “Fallen Man, Paris” (1967), “The picture doesn’t have to tell a full story.” Or perhaps more broadly, the full story of a picture is all the stories that the photograph makes possible, which may be what Meyerowitz has in mind in concluding about “Fallen Man” that “a photograph shows you everything but the meaning.”

Joel Meyerowitz, “Fallen Man, Paris” (1967)

Alongside the necessity of moving closer in, Meyerowitz dwells on the absolute necessity of moving out, stepping back, giving up the need to pin things down. To him, it is both a formalist and an ethical calling. As he says of the Winogrand picture, “This kind of seeing, of noticing subjects both near and far at the same time, is something photography does very well.” And from further back, a photographer can take a different kind of picture, one that sees things in a richer and more multi-vocal way. In writing about the book’s next-to-last picture, Tony Ray-Jones’s “Windsor Horse Show” (1967), Meyerowitz pauses to reflect on Ray-Jones, a fellow student of his who died in his thirties. “As young photographers, we struggled to teach ourselves to look over all the space in front of us so that we could capture as many events as possible in a single photograph.” This would allow photography to train young people to see things in a more generous—less colonizing—way. These pictures are less uni-vocal and require slower readings and slower readers. In this context, perhaps Meyerowitz’s formalism is, in part, a tool to help us slow down. While there is no alternative, as he says of the Boubat photograph of Nella, to time moving art’s audience forward, we become more fully ourselves to the extent that we can remember that we do not ever own the full story.

–Jonathan Kamholtz

Comments are closed.