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Joel Meyerowitz, The Laid-back Lensman

July 21, 1985|SUZANNE MUCHNIC

Photographer Joel Meyerowitz is a lazy interviewer's dream. Ask him a single question about his new book, "A Summer's Day," and he'll spin on for an hour, happily recalling the project's evolution and creating poetic verbal equivalents of his languorous pictures of Cape Cod.

"No, I'm not going to rush," Meyerowitz says when reminded that it is almost time for him to catch a plane from Los Angeles to his Manhattan home. He may look the part of a lean, hungry, aggressive New York artist, flying around the country to promote his book, but his manner immediately reverses the stereotype. Taking another bite of his apricot pastry, he sits back and continues to elucidate a quintessentially leisurely body of work.

"I believe that in photography the work teaches you about what your interests really are and who you've been," Meyerowitz says, explaining that he periodically surveys his work to discover "a center line." About 2 1/2 years ago, when he sat down with a big batch of color photographs taken with an 8x10 view camera during seven summers at Cape Cod, he found that the line was "a simple sigh."

This "sigh" wafts through pictures of dreamy interiors, freckled kids hugging themselves, a hammock twirling in the wind and--most plentifully--through photographs taken at the ocean's edge. Some pictures are boldly symmetrical, with a centered figure looking out to sea or with a bright blue chair and a white column bisecting an ocean view. More often, Meyerowitz's summer pictures have the abandoned air of an artist so immersed in his relaxing surroundings that he has inhaled their seductive ambiance and exhaled it in his art.

"This work was made in a personal way, involving family and friends. It says nothing larger than, 'Oh, that's wonderful.' I'm not trying to document; then you end up with cliches," he says. "These pictures are a link from moment to memory--the moment when school let out and you were free. You exposed yourself to summer."

A winner of two Guggenheim fellowships, a National Endowment for the Arts grant and author of three other books, Meyerowitz has done everything from commercial work to street photography and his current romantic landscapes. In "A Summer's Day," he is also a writer, offering an essay that weaves memories of childhood summers in the Bronx into observations about his adult passion for taking photographs.

Time seems suspended in "A Summer's Day" and the book appears to have as little structure as an endless vacation at the beach, but in fact Meyerowitz has condensed seven seasons of work into a progression of images that represents one day. A barely visible view of "Dawn" leads to "First Light," a "Morning Storm," then on to beachside gatherings in full light, sunset barbecues and dusk. Night finally closes in as the horizon all but disappears in rectangular swaths of slate gray, midnight blue and moonlight-streaked black.

For all their ethereal romance, Meyerowitz believes the pictures in his new book have "a conversational quality and a kind of ordinariness" about them. "They are pictures that converse rather than dictate. They wander around in your eye," he says. "Photographers are often insecure. They make everything so urgent. I'm trying not to do that. I want to come up to the subject on cat's feet."

Meyerowitz has tried to throw off the self-involvement that prevents people from seeing their surroundings and he thinks of "A Summer's Day" as an essay on being free to feel. He talks passionately about picturing such elusive conditions as "airiness" or "weightiness" and thereby comes up with an apt description of his work.

"To describe something that's hardly there with absolute accuracy" is Meyerowitz's goal, particularly in his "very empty pictures" of uninhabited beaches. While some pictures bring sun-tanned youngsters up close or survey a motley crowd, they more typically emphasize "the tininess" of human beings or "the physical vastness at water's edge." Wooden clothespins on a line resemble gaggles of chattering birds, while people seem little larger than twigs or grains of sand.

"I'm trying to discover the total blueness at 7:30 p.m. or the distinction between air and water," Meyerowitz mused, turning to a picture of an expanse of blue sky and water softly punctuated by a small cluster of rocks and a lone boat. "The Cape is only a sand spit in the ocean but each year it seems more profound."

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