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'Hope is best expressed in colour': Joel Meyerowitz on the power of colour photography

Posted on 14 Nov 2023

We sit down with legendary photographer Joel Meyerowitz to explore his foundational work with colour.

© Joel Meyerowitz. Crossing The Atlantic Ocean, 1967.

Thames & Hudson: In your book Joel Meyerowitz: A Question of Color, you mention an encounter with photographer Robert Frank in 1962 as foundational to your photography practice. What was it about this encounter that inspired you?

Joel Meyerowitz: I saw for the very first time that photography could capture moving things, while the photographer was also moving, and that time itself was an emotional and aesthetic factor in the act of recognizing what was of importance to me.

T&H: From 1963, you began shooting ‘pairs’ – companion images, one in colour and the other in black and white. Why did that endeavour feel important to you?

JM: Photography in the early 60’s was seen as a black and white medium, and colour was thought to be artificial, commercial or amateurish. But since I was an innocent, what did I know? So I went ahead and basically ignored that resistance. After a year of shooting in colour, I was able to buy a second camera and I had the idea that I’d make these pairs so that I could learn about the way each medium saw the world.

© Joel Meyerowitz. Central Park, New York City, 1966.

T&H: This book explores the ‘question of colour’, and the dialogue created between a colour image and a black and white image. Is this dialogue ever finished? Does one image reign supreme?

JM: Everyone must decide that for themselves. It’s truly a personal preference. My rationale is that the world is in colour, and we are a gifted species who can see the amazing subtlety of the spectrum, so I take that as my guide.

To be honest, though, black and white has a powerful reductive and graphic character, and some subjects are best expressed in it. However, there are conditions that come with that choice; for example, many people seeing my work from Ground Zero asked me why didn’t I shoot it in black and white? My response was that that would have kept the work in the ‘tragic mode’, and I saw the uplifting character of the whole effort as a grand human gesture. I didn’t want to level it to appear as grim, grey, dark, hopeless. Hope was best expressed in colour, and in the sunlight, blue skies and glorious days that the site existed in.

© Joel Meyerowitz. Disney World, Orlando, Florida, 1969.

T&H: Before taking up photography, you were working as painter, and at an advertising agency. Have other areas of visual culture – such as painting, and ads – informed your photography and your relationship to colour?

JM: Yes! When you’ve moved paint around on a canvas, you know the feeling that colour expresses as you see it slide and sweep its energy through the field. I learned that at a young age. My studies in art history also showed me centuries’ worth of the ways in which artists had approached all kinds of human energies. Not that any one figure was a major influence, it’s more like the total of all of history went in deep enough to give me a foundation in seeing.

T&H: In a world where digital images can switch between colour and black and white at the tap of a button, what is the role of colour in photography?

JM: This is the question that each person has to find their own answer to. Why colour? And it’s a good question, because if you ask it, and then make an answer for yourself, in that moment you’ll have the first understanding of your own determination to make your own decisions, rather than accepting what the crowd suggests as ‘normal’.

Let’s be honest here, feeling that you are unique, and each of really is, offers us each an opportunity to express ourselves in ways that let that magic quality out of the bottle and into the open. Take inspiration from works that move you, but don’t copy them. Make your ideas visible.

Joel Meyerowitz: A Question of Color

Joel Meyerowitz, Robert Shore