Joel Meyerowitz: Why Colour


In march 2018 we visited the Joel Meyerowitz. Why Colour? retrospective at C/O Berlin curated by Felix Hoffman. The work shown came from photographer, Joel Meyerowitz’ personal archive and aimed to answer the question featured in the title of the retrospective - Why Colour? As one of the photographic pioneers of colour photography the question was apt and interesting. Why shift from the, at the time, respected format of black and white photography which boasted a truly objective view, not creating an emotive response through colour perception?

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The main argument at the time, and a very valid point, was that we don't see the world in black and white so why subtract that element within photography? The topic is still discussed to this day between photographers - which is the most objective view. Meyerowitz, like so many other pioneers, didn't shy away from the subjective nature of colour use in images. He understood that colour in imagery had just as much right to be there as the subject did, as a bold statement accepting and celebrating the subjectivity of photography. It seemed that the switch to colour photography came about to not rely on one ‘incident’ but rather to rely on the image as a whole. This approach to photography reminded me of classical painting techniques and how every mark on the canvas was a well laid one. Considering the sum of the image just as important as its parts.


Alongside the first section of work, this quote from Meyerowitz on choosing to work with colour, was mounted and then left resting against the wall. The whole exhibition was highlighted in sections by words from the artist himself on his previous practice and how it has evolved - his retrospective in words.

“Anything you have done well is worth letting go of. I was forcing myself to let go of the “incident”, which was how I made photographs since the beginning. Now I was looking at the whole field, the street, human activity, the buildings, the sky, the weather, the temperature of the light, and all of this without the usual hierarchy of content that an incident brought to a photograph. I began to call these “field photographs”, because I wanted everything in the field to be of equal importance and to be read as the overall content of the image. [...]”

- Joel Meyerowitz via Joel Meyerowitz. Why Colour?


Meandering through, from his early street photography shot in black and white, the retrospective leads you into an accurate professional biography, depicted through imagery; how Meyerowitz developed his practice. Early shots capturing often comedic and cinematic decisive moments develop into a contemporary still life tableau which further becomes meticulous and conceptually driven portraiture; landscape and still life hinting at clear vision in practice and forethought. All these genres and directives have valid place in the study of photography today.


The retrospective was fantastic. Through the creative and thought provoking curation by Felix Hoffman, the enigmatic imagery from Joel Meyerowitz and the whole archive of his progressive practice is inspiring and revealing. Any avid or amateur photographer can glean a lot from this body of work. As well as being a lovely and pleasing exhibition the whole shows serves a purpose and offers discourse on the subject of photography. Like Meyerowitz uses colour so can photography use this retrospective to learn more about the practice of photography.

“What freedom! Just being out in the world, shooting whatever spoke to me or suggested itself to my eye. Actually, learning to listen to what speaks to you, rather than prejudging or censoring, is what a trip like that offered. The world is far richer and more interesting than my imagination could conceive of, and by accepting this - which is the approach to photography I still practice, and what I think is at the heart of the medium - I learned not to second guess myself and simply let the world play on my eyes. I think that is why photography still interests me, the inexhaustible abundance of the world’s capacity to reimagine itself has taught me to trust in it and pay attention to what is being offered. Out of that communion comes your work. [...]”

- Joel Meyerowitz via Joel Meyerowitz. Why Colour?

Text by Pagy Wicks. Images by Joel Meyerowitz copyrighted. Images from the Joel Meyerowitz. Why Colour? exhibition at C/O Berlin.