Interview: Joel Meyerowitz

Joel Meyerowitz has been obsessed with Redheads and the light on Cape Cod since a family summer holiday back in 1976.

It was a hot summer in 1976, when Meyerowitz had newly acquired a large-format view camera and was looking to experiment with portraiture. Taking to the sunny streets of Cape Cod, where his family was in residence for the holidays, Meyerowitz recalls that he started out making portraits with the intention of photographing ordinary people.

‘Redheads’, it turns out, are both ordinary and special. “I started to make a few portraits, just by chance, and I noticed that an unusually large percentage of these were of red-haired or freckled people, it was their heliotropic quality – the way their hair and skin were transformed by the summer weather”.

Inspired by his first stint at redhead portraiture, he ran an ad in the Provincetown Advocate, and began collecting not just the pictures, but the experiences of the people who grew up with red hair. Making up only three percent of the world’s population, he felt the collected stories of schoolyard bullying and self-acceptance showed a much broader narrative of growth and beauty. 

Now based in the laid-back hills of Tuscany, Meyerowitz took some time out to have a chat with us about the new hardcover edition of Redheads (out now via Damiani) that includes some previously unseen portraits, and incidentally, a standout portrait of a gorgeous young Joan Cusak.


Happy: Tell us about your neighborhood, what do you love / not love about where you live? Most importantly, what’s the light like?

Joel: I’m living in the Tuscan countryside where today’s temperature is 42 degrees celsius. It’s blazing now, and we see it as a first-hand view of climate change. All the farmers here are wondering what to plant now that each summer starts at least a m month earlier, and then we have no rain for 3-4 months. So when it’s HOT, and the light is dull to an almost white haze, I work indoors on still lives that are pushing me now, or else I work on my Archive of recently scanned and never seen color and B&W work; 350,000 images 260k are color Kodachrome’s.

Happy: Describe your average workday? What would be your ideal day?

Joel: I’m up by 6:00, work out, then walk before it’s too hot. Breakfast and then – depending on the season, I go to a nearby town, Siena, Montalcino, San Quirico and enjoy the pace of life there while trying to see things that I have not seen before. It’s all about ordinary life and how to make it interesting, the same challenge as always wherever I am.

Happy: What did you see or watch growing up that fuelled your passion for photography? 

Joel: My father was a real New York street guy, a regular mayor of the block kind of tough guy. He taught me to watch all the action and life on the street,; 1 -as a way to learn to take care of myself in any situation, and 2- because he could almost predict when something was about to happen that would be funny, dangerous, sexy, playful, etc. His wide-eyed view showed me how unpredictable life can be, and how to enjoy it.

Happy: Which photographer inspired you and drove you to become an artist? Can you choose an image, old or new, that solidified your decision to follow in the path of photography?

Joel: Robert Frank was my first jolt of recognition that Photography was a way to LIVE in the world, and possibly a way of making sense of it, Bresson was next for me with his amazing timing and thinking ahead. Frank’s photo of a crown on a street in New Orleans did it for me once I understood how deep that image took me. 

Happy: Which image do you covet, old or new?

Joel: Bresson has so many it’s a hard call.

Happy: Do you consider your particular practice to be an integral part of your well-being? 

Joel: Absolutely, my head space is informed by the way the world looks to me on any given day. Generally, I am an optimist, so seeing the potential and playful qualities of daily life in every gesture, or in the ballet of street life fulfills my sense of well-being.

Happy: Photography in particular follows the rules of first chasing creativity and then finishing up with the practicals. Do you have a darkroom and if so, do you spend much time there? 

Joel: I had a darkroom for 45 years but since digital processes came along – and I began scanning in the early 80’s – (even had a Museum show of early digital Fuji prints I made myself) so I was preparing myself for the new world, and I made my first digital images starting in 1999, so I was way ahead of the game. I print almost every day. In fact, some prints are running in the background now.

Happy: Roseville Cottages from your series Cape Light is one of our favorite photos, it’s timeless and captures a great depth of colour and beauty. Do you have an all-time personal favorite of your own, that you feel you really nailed?

Joel: I’ve made so many images that the ones that are considered my ‘favourites’ are really the ones that teach me something about myself, the medium, and life.

An expanded edition has just been reprinted via (DAMIANI) and is available via all good booksellers