Joel Meyerowitz is probably most widely known as the photographer who cannily gained the earliest access to Ground Zero, capturing its destruction, reconstruction, and daily heroism in indelible images. Recorded history was fortunate that a veteran of decades of street photography was on site, his honed alertness and stamina brought to the task of describing the enormity of 9/11 in all its awful details. (Selections from his Aftermath: World Trade Center Archive are permanently installed at the National September 11 Museum.)

© Joel Meyerowitz. ‘Five more found, New York City’, 2001

As for many in Meyerowitz’s generation, Robert Frank was a crucial figure. Meyerowitz was a young Bronx-bred art director in New York in 1962, when a project sent him to the location where Frank was shooting.

He moved so smoothly and his photographs were made during the movement. I didn’t know you could do that; I thought photography was a static medium. It was such a surprise to me that when I left the shoot, everything in ordinary life on the street suddenly had the potential for meaning, and the world was alive to me. I went back to my office and quit my job.

Frank’s landmark book, The Americans, likewise jolted Meyerowitz into new ways of thinking about shooting pictures, leading to a stellar half-century career. “To see something as powerful and dark and broad and rich and poetic made me think that’s what I aspire to in my life — not making individual masterpieces, but making work that has a flowing integrity and sums up something larger.”

Early on, Meyerowitz intuitively seized upon the possibilities of color film, despite its stepchild status as an artistic medium at the time. He later cited the assertion of John Szarkowski, MoMA’s visionary photography curator, that photography is simply “describing what’s in front of the lens.” This was a game-changing epiphany. “If description was what photography was about, then color described more things.” He pioneered a particular kind of urban street photography, predicated on a patient vigilance for a resonant balance of the comedic and the compassionate — while helping to dissolve art photographers’ pedantic inhibitions toward the emotional alchemy of color.

As he matured, Meyerowitz continually reinvented himself. Not long ago, having spent most of his career outside, he embarked on several series that brought him inside. Stimulated by a visit to Cézanne’s studio while doing a book on Provence, Meyerowitz began making still lifes using small discarded objects. Like the painter, he investigates inanimate things in an artificial setting rather than found scenes in the flux of city life. He considers the resulting grids to be akin to 19th-century typologies of the natural world, but he finds an ethereal beauty in the rescued bric-a-brac just by looking at it differently.

Another series pushed him just as far from his earlier stock-in-trade. For 40 years, he had photographed landscapes with a large-format view camera. “A seascape is quite conventional, it’s got the water, the horizon line …” He noticed divers entering a pool would leave a swirl of air behind them that quickly rose up to the surface. This made him ponder the elements in a new way that resulted in large eye-enveloping fields of earth, air, water, and fire. These distilled visual ruminations could be said to return Meyerowitz full circle to his beginnings as a student of art and design. “If you can make something come alive from more than one looking, you’ve made a transformation. All artists seek transformation. Using paint or paper or whatever, they can manifest some kind of vitality. That is where art lies.”

Joel Meyerowitz – Retrospektive at NRW-Forum Düsseldorf runs through January 11Immersion/Vision at La Piscine, Roubaix, France through February 8.

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More from the Photographer Spotlight Series:

ROGER BALLEN

NICHOLAS VREELAND

DAVID LACHAPELLE

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SERIES PRODUCER / MICHAEL KURCFELD