PHO705 Week 13: Caponigro, Meyerowitz, NFTs

I have been to several online talks in the last ten days.

The first talk was ‘What Printing Can Do for You’ with John Paul Caponigro (Caponigro 2021), someone whose website I have often consulted not least for the many interviews with photographers.

I have not done much printing, and I would like to more, so this talk hosted by the Photographers’ Gallery was a good fit. Caponigro listed a long series of reasons to make prints, many of which I had not thought about. In his view, a print is durable, scaleable (in terms of size), sensual (it is tactile) and exclusive (you can limit the number of prints). Prints can also form hand-made books, gifts, marketing information and so on. There are many uses for the print beyond display on a friendly wall.

What I had not thought of is that in Caponigro’s view a print can lead to a different experience of photography. It helps the photographer to make a statement and the viewer to connect to the image. It obliges one to look more carefully, and in very large prints one can ‘wander around’ and look at details in a way that is not possible online. A print allows the photographer to decide what is important (dodging and burning to draw out or suppress parts of an image, for example, or choice of materials). Above all, a print brings with it a context. The photographer can decide where and how the print is received through choice of size, venue and framing. Caponigro was particularly interesting on framing a print: the importance of treating the frame as a transition zone and of matching frame to context by first checking the space where the print will be displayed.

These aspects of the print help one to share experiences and thereby (one hopes) build relationships. This is a very important element in ‘putting it out there’ and taking a more commercial and professional approach to one’s practice.

Caponigro also covered a list of technical details: what to look for when assessing a print and how best to make one. I won’t go into that, not least because the world of the print and its role in connecting to customers, contacts and friends are what really mattered in this talk.

The second talk was ‘Photographer Talk: Joel Meyerowitz’ (Meyerowitz 2021). In a way, this was a trip down Nostalgia Lane. Meyerowitz has long been something of a hero of mine but the world that characterized much of his best photography – street life circa 1960-1990 – has now gone forever.

However, Meyerowitz has always been preternaturally talented as a visual artist, with an ability to pick out compositions and significant moments in an almost entirely instinctual way (see Fig. 1). As he said in the talk, ‘I like to be in places where things are coming together and falling apart in the moment. … You frame the elements of life that are most exciting to you at that moment’ (Meyerowitz 2021). The keyword here is ‘exciting’, not merely interesting, intellectually stimulating, satirical or conceptual. Meyerowitz’s best classic street photography is a visceral response to the world, and sometimes a hard-hitting one, as was Robert Frank’s. It was Frank who inspired Meyerowitz to become a photographer.

Fig. 1: Joel Meyerowitz 1999
Fig. 1: Joel Meyerowitz 1999. ‘New York City, 1999’.

I have always admired Meyerowitz’s ability to reinvent himself and change when necessary. Most photographers are good at a single thing and there is no doubt that classic street photography is what Meyerowitz will be remembered for. However, not long after Meyerowitz had established himself on the streets of New York he branched out into a very different genre: environmental and landscape photography using an 8” x 10” view camera. This eventually found expression in his book Cape Light (Meyerowitz 2015), among other works.

Fig. 2: Joel Meyerowitz 1976
Fig. 2: Joel Meyerowitz 1976. ‘Dairyland, Provincetown, Cape Cod, 1976’.

Meyerowitz said in his talk that he begun to feel trapped in photographing ‘incidents’ on the street. He wanted to explore what he called the ‘colour field’, ‘field photography’ and ‘deep space’. He wanted, he said, to produce ‘as immersive an experience as a Rothko’ (Meyerowitz 2021). There are echoes of Stephen Shore in this. Shore was also using a view camera in the same period and talked of ‘filling the frame with attentionality’ (Shore 2018). Perhaps this was a cultural change, or the zeitgeist or perhaps the influence of John Szarkowski who knew both photographers well.

As Teju Cole has pointed out, ‘The renovation of photography’s possibilities happens generationally. But within this slow evolution are faster cycles, certain artists who keep it moving so that their individual oeuvres come to constitute mini-histories of photography: artists like Paul Strand, Berenice Abbott and Joel Meyerowitz’ (Cole 2018).

There is heavy pressure on photographers today to be specialists and to market themselves as brands that are finely honed to a single thing. Social media like Instagram pushes the same idea, as does the teaching establishment. It is not always helpful. Not everyone can manage a narrow specialization, and if one can’t then I think one should simply accept it rather than spend years trying to be something one is not. Meyerowitz’s landscapes are not his best work, in my view, but they are pretty darn impressive even so. One could say the same of Don McCullin’s late landscapes of Somerset. Ansel Adams took plenty of portraits as well as the landscapes for which he is remembered. Nadav Kander is a rare photographer who seems equally adept in both worlds: portraiture and environmental photography.

Teju Cole again: ‘In reading artists, we ought to focus more on what they intend than on the stylistic gestures that help us identify their works. Meyerowitz is certainly stylish — there is always a formal clarity in his work — but he can’t be pinned down to two or three styles. His oeuvre is as varied as any among contemporary photographic masters, but this is not a matter of restlessness. The variety is organically related to whatever he is exploring at any given point. He changes because he must’ (Cole 2018).

Joel Meyerowitz would never go quietly into someone else’s box.

The third talk this week was on ‘NFTs and Photography’ with Marco De Mutiis and Jon Uriarte, part of a series of talks on contemporary issues in photography hosted by Self Publish, Be Happy (De Mutiis and Uriarte 2021). However, the subject was so complicated that I still do not understand it and will have to do much more research and reading. In brief, De Mutiis and Uriarte thought that NFTs (and associated blockchain technology) are still in an unregulated Wild West phase, attracting a lot of scams and publicity hounds but not yet much of significance in terms of art and photography (finance is a different matter). That will come, and it will be very important, but a framework and an internationally recognised legal structure are needed first. In the meantime, when asked whether they would buy an NFT as a work of art, both speakers said No, which is rather a give-away. The best question of the evening was on how and whether Richard Prince could devise a way to ‘re-photograph’ an NFT artwork and profit from the result.

References

CAPONIGRO, John Paul. 2021. ‘Wonderful Things Printing Can Do for You and Your Images’. RPS Digital Imaging [online]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7b9ID8DNKZg [accessed 28 April 2021].

COLE, Teju. 2018. ‘Joel Meyerowitz’s Career Is a Minihistory of Photography’. New York Times [online]. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/18/magazine/joel-meyerowitzs-career-is-minihistory-of-photography.html [accessed 3 May 2021].

DE MUTIIS, Marco and John URIARTE. 2021. ‘NFTs and Photography’. Self Publish, Be Happy [online]. Available at: https://vimeo.com/spbh [accessed 30 April 2021].

MEYEROWITZ, Joel. 2021. ‘Photographer Talk: Joel Meyerowitz’. Photographers’ Gallery [online]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u8eXa9rhCzM [accessed 3 May 2021].

SHORE, Stephen. 2018. ‘How to See: The Photographer with Stephen Shore’. YouTube [online]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T029CTSO0IE [accessed 23 Jan 2020].

Figures

Figure 1: Joel MEYEROWITZ. 1999. ‘New York City, 1999’. From: Meyerowitz, Joel. 2021. Wild Flowers. Revised ed. Bologna: Damiani.

Figure 2: Joel MEYEROWITZ. 1976. ‘Dairyland, Provincetown, Cape Cod, 1976’. From: Meyerowitz, Joel. 2015. Cape Light. Revised ed. New York: Aperture.