Where We Find Ourselves
March 7, 2018 11:25 AM   Subscribe

Interview - Photography legend Joel Meyerowitz: phones killed the sexiness of the street — “In the 60s and 70s you could look at my street photographs and trace lines from the eyes of people connecting with other people’s eyes, setting up these force fields.” Today, what entranced Joel Meyerowitz about the street is all but dead. “Nobody’s looking at each other. Everybody’s glued to their phones.” From The Guardian, March 7, 2018.

See also Joel Meyerowitz’s Career Is a Minihistory of Photography, New York Times Magazine, January 18, 2018. Previously on Mefi.
posted by cenoxo (39 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
 
Phones really have fucked up just about everything. I went to Cuba in 2014 and I'll tell you that the feeling on the street was the very strongest vibe I felt there, and it *was* about sex. People were operating, people we're getting laid... you could feel it like electricity. They were out on the streets and their eyes were very different. It was a day or two into the trip that I realized that there were no phones to speak of. This is a huge difference in the way that we are all living...
posted by n9 at 11:36 AM on March 7 [1 favorite]


Beep beep, Male Gaze Alert
posted by The Toad at 11:36 AM on March 7 [72 favorites]


There is so much brilliant street photography right now, showing all kinds of interaction. "Things aren't as good as when I was a boy..." He's just an old grump who doesn't even realize it. C'mon, Joel, have some self-awareness, at least...
posted by PhineasGage at 11:37 AM on March 7 [17 favorites]


I actually don't see that many people glued to their phones? Of course, where I live you can't have your hand out of a pocket for more than twenty seconds unless you want frostbite.
posted by selfnoise at 11:38 AM on March 7 [9 favorites]


I hadn’t heard of him, but I love the photographs in the article. I don’t know all that much about art photography, but he reminds me a little bit of Weegee (I’m sure it’s a cliche for a young man to love Weegee’s photography, but I always did love it).

I’m as anti-smartphone as anyone, but I don’t know that I necessarily feel the same way about them killing the street. Although I also haven’t been trying to photograph anything. Maybe something is different and I’ve just gotten used to it?
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 11:53 AM on March 7


One of the most common images of New York City is that of sidewalks teeming with blank-faced people on their way to work, their eyes connecting with nothing in particular except maybe making sure that they don't run into the person in front of them. They didn't need cell phones to get that look.

Of course, Meyerowitz excelled at finding the other kind of moments. I've always admired photographers who could get shots like that, either being very quick on the draw with their cameras or having some sense of a developing situation that would blossom for a split second while they got the shot. Maybe he just doesn't see the moments any more.
posted by Halloween Jack at 11:53 AM on March 7 [10 favorites]


And you never run into that special sexy someone at the village well anymore! Sanitary running water has KILLED the sexiness of the street, killed it dead!
posted by kyrademon at 11:53 AM on March 7 [65 favorites]


I live in a warm climate and go walking at least twice a week, and I don't see that many people on their phones on the street either. If they're on the street, they're either looking at their route or watching their children or talking with their friends etc. This definitely includes that group most maligned as phone-glued (i.e. young people).

I personally often deliberately disengage myself from the people around me but even that isn't via phone; it's via headphones + podcast.
posted by inconstant at 11:56 AM on March 7 [4 favorites]


Gosh, I also miss when women were subject to the relentless predatory gaze of strange men and didn't have phones they could pretend to look at to avoid unwanted eye contact. Oh the sexy!
posted by maxsparber at 11:58 AM on March 7 [62 favorites]


WHY ARE YOU PEOPLE NOT OPEN TO THE KIND OF SOCIAL INTERACTION I THINK YOU SHOULD BE HAVING???
posted by tobascodagama at 11:58 AM on March 7 [54 favorites]


Eat the rich and then have the cranky old forced-socialisation fuckers for dessert.
posted by tobascodagama at 11:59 AM on March 7 [21 favorites]


The flip side is with their ubiquity cell phones have enabled street photography for everyone and not just those brave enough to risk a beating or worse.
posted by Mitheral at 12:00 PM on March 7 [11 favorites]


Smart phones have really ruined the social commentary essay; everywhere I look now, people are just complaining about people looking at their phones; I can barely find commentary about any other fucking thing these days.
posted by Joey Buttafoucault at 12:01 PM on March 7 [40 favorites]


Shoutout to the people who FaceTime while walking down Manhattan sidewalks.

But really, if phones can kill the street, didn't Walkmen do it decades ago?
posted by BungaDunga at 12:02 PM on March 7 [1 favorite]


Velocipedestriennes killed the street, it is known.
posted by sandettie light vessel automatic at 12:07 PM on March 7 [10 favorites]


I work in an area where people are pretty much always glued to their phones. Would that this had killed "sexiness" instead of "looking where you're going" and "not walking on the bike path".
posted by Frowner at 12:08 PM on March 7 [10 favorites]


Phones really have fucked up just about everything. I went to Cuba in 2014 and I'll tell you that the feeling on the street was the very strongest vibe I felt there, and it *was* about sex.

Plenty of what is going on with the phones is also about sex. People are still operating, and getting laid just fine.

Maybe it is less public, and with a little more room to opt out, if you do not feel like being operated at, and maybe that is fine.
posted by St. Sorryass at 12:12 PM on March 7 [12 favorites]


I went to Cuba in 2014 and I'll tell you that the feeling on the street was the very strongest vibe I felt there, and it *was* about sex. People were operating, people we're getting laid

God forbid I just want to get from the train to my job without getting laid. Jeebus H, I lost my left eye, it rolled right out of my damn head.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 12:15 PM on March 7 [36 favorites]


One man's "sexy chance moments" is one introverted woman's personal nightmare hell. I literally don't make eye contact with strangers anymore unless there's a conversation involved, because it seems a number of dudes treat the daring act of looking at them as an invitation to creep on me, and dealing with that shit is exhausting. I'll stick with my phone, thanks.
posted by Feyala at 12:18 PM on March 7 [37 favorites]


Also I love that one of the main photos they use to illustrate how much more "connected" and whatnot the streets were Back In The Day is literally a photo of two dozen people failing to help an injured man. Super connected, that.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 12:21 PM on March 7 [8 favorites]


Joel Meyerowitz - Photographer. This YouTube excerpt from the documentary Contemporary Photography in the USA (Michael Engler, 1982) shows Meyerowitz at work.
posted by cenoxo at 12:28 PM on March 7 [1 favorite]


Certainly, some percentage of people are absent-mindedly wandering through the world looking at their phone instead of where they're going. The question is, will anyone passing by do anything if I attempt to beat them to death?
posted by Automocar at 12:38 PM on March 7 [1 favorite]


I'm a documentary and news photographer, so I have some sympathy to the argument that it's harder to find interesting moments when everyone's glued to a screen. Last night, in fact, I was photographing a speaker in a panel on a stage who spent most of the time looking at her phone when she wasn't speaking. Twenty years ago, I likely would've had an easier time getting her looking contemplative and engaged in the event, but not last night. Like everything else in photography, this all just means you have to work harder, be more patient, or get access to places where people are engaging with one another.

But, the world isn't photographers' oyster, so we've got to work with what we're given, and it's still possible to find great moments out and about. I don't want to see a million features focused on cell phones, but Martin Parr did an interesting piece in 2000/2001 looking at the devices and how they're used.

Likewise, it's hard to escape from taking photos filled with selfie sticks in some tourist destinations, so you've got to think more creatively about your approach.

I do a lot of work covering science and technology, and plastic water bottles and people staring at laptops are my two nemeses. So much of the work I'm trying to visually translate is nano-scale or computational; I don't have the luxury of working with larger models and prototypes like Berenice Abbot did when she was photographing around MIT.

On the other subject in this thread, street photography has long been dominated by (white) men. Enough so that there was an article on PetaPixel a few years ago entitled "Where are all the Female Street Photographers?" That doubled as an interview with the founder of a flickr group of female street photographers called Double X, that might be worth checking out. Not in that group (that I know of) is one of my long-time favorites Narelle Autio, who I believe is the the sole woman in the In-Public street photography collective.

If you want to do some digging, you're sure to find some great street photography by perusing the work of those on Women Photograph.

On the subject of diversity in photography, check out Ruddy Roye's or Andre D. Wagner's street work from two black men's perspectives. And spend some time with Diversify Photo
posted by msbrauer at 12:58 PM on March 7 [29 favorites]


Those are great links and great recommendations, msbrauer! Looks like a lot of great stuff to go through.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 1:10 PM on March 7 [2 favorites]


If something as simple as a phone can give someone a layer of separation from "street" sex, then I am all for it. Of course, anyone at anytime can now take a photo of you and share it with the world.
posted by Brocktoon at 1:18 PM on March 7 [2 favorites]


grr, you kids! get off my lawn! but make sexy eye contact while you are getting off my lawn thx
posted by prize bull octorok at 1:25 PM on March 7 [9 favorites]


I use my phone all the time to get out of potentially icky street interactions. Sorry not sorry.
posted by soren_lorensen at 1:41 PM on March 7 [8 favorites]



I use my phone all the time to get out of potentially icky street interactions. Sorry not sorry.


Did you get one of those fancy phone cases with a switchblade built in? Savage!
posted by Liquidwolf at 1:47 PM on March 7


Phones really have fucked up just about everything. I went to Cuba in 2014 and I'll tell you that the feeling on the street was the very strongest vibe I felt there, and it *was* about sex.

Dude.

Dude.

Seriously.
posted by tzikeh at 2:05 PM on March 7 [15 favorites]


I don't mean to kick a beehive here but NYC is less interesting to photograph because of the boring sameness of gentrification more than the invention of the smartphone. But don't take my word for it, let Nelson Sullivan show you.

Nelson Sullivan, previously
posted by Grimp0teuthis at 5:24 PM on March 7 [3 favorites]


...and, given the time, Sullivan’s Hanging Out on Avenue A in 1986 has nary a cell phone in sight.
posted by cenoxo at 6:07 PM on March 7


It is the most outwardly visible and upsetting aspect of the new psychology that hypernormalisation has created. We are literally not here anymore.
posted by Meatbomb at 8:59 PM on March 7


From the perspective of Nanjing, it really is the case that everyone is always looking at their phone. On the metro you can occasionally see a very old person, a poor person, or a small child that is actually looking around in the environment. Similar case on the street.

As a teacher trainer it is particularly frustrating. The "no phones" battle seems to have been lost, especially now that in my context people "need them" to do some translation, take photos of the whiteboard or screen I am using for the presentation, there are a million excuses and it is not worth trying to battle. But here in China, anyone younger than maybe 35 is, in their default behavior, staring into their phone screen. The real world is more boring when there are no people there.

Of course these technologies directly effect socialization, psychology, brain chemistry, etc... whether good or bad, in the longer run it will be interesting to see how these new people pan out.
posted by Meatbomb at 9:12 PM on March 7 [1 favorite]


God forbid I just want to get from the train to my job without getting laid.

Was going to make comment relating to Bay Area Rapid Transit, thought better of it.
posted by gtrwolf at 9:17 PM on March 7 [3 favorites]


I find myself torn, because I certainly used to walk around either with a book in my hand or earphones on, not engaging with the world directly, and got scolded for it, and I kind of understand why it bothered some adults, now. You do need to engage with the world at least some of the time, and get past that initial 20 minutes of "Ugh, this is so boring, I want to look at Twitter/read the next chapter/hear that song." At the same time, I was a really oversensitive and anxious kid and books and music were a way of taking an overwhelming world and making it where I could deal with it in small chunks.

As I got older, I got more capable of processing what was around me, and I needed distractions less, and was more able to engage.

And it is also entirely possible to walk around without any kind of technology or distraction and be entirely in your own head and not engaged in the outside world. I did it living in New York plenty of times, walking familiar routes home, I was certainly not looking for some sizzling sexy eye contact with random people on the street. I was thinking about dinner, or how cold I was, or what bills I couldn't afford to pay that month.

People on the street looking at phones...what do they do the rest of the time? They might work in an emotionally intense field like therapy or social work. They might meditate and practice awareness sometimes. You really don't know what they're dealing with. So I guess I'm on the side of, it's none of my business why someone wants to look at their phone.
posted by emjaybee at 7:55 AM on March 8 [2 favorites]


The only reason I know of Meyerowitz is because I sublet his house in upstate NY one summer.
posted by Obscure Reference at 8:11 AM on March 8


As his work evolved, Meyerowitz became a tougher, indomitable street presence, and yet one – like the best photographers – able to charm his subjects into giving him what he wants. You can see that in the way he got swimsuited young women to pose guilelessly near his summer home in Provincetown, Massachusetts, for a series of early 80s pictures that prefigured Rineke Dijkstra’s similar subject matter. How, for instance, he inveigles a red-headed young woman – “as exotic as a tropical fish” – to pose for his camera, exposing her freckled arms.

Ummmm I wonder if any of those women wish they'd had a phone to stare at.
posted by nakedmolerats at 9:33 AM on March 8 [9 favorites]


I don't mean to kick a beehive here but NYC is less interesting to photograph because of the boring sameness of gentrification more than the invention of the smartphone.

If you really believe that then you haven't walked around about 90% of Queens. But then most people who only see gentrification in NYC only really consider NYC the parts that are gentrifying.
posted by laptolain at 7:39 PM on March 8 [1 favorite]


Ms. Exotic-as-a-Tropical-Fish reminds me of that thing that happened with the famous Afghan Girl cover on National Geographic, where originally everyone read her facial expression as "mysterious" and "haunting" and whatever else, and then someone found her and interviewed her and it turned out the real emotion in that photo was who the fuck are you and what the fuck is your problem? And as soon as I had that pointed out, I couldn't unsee it. I can't access the experience of seeing it as "mysterious" and "haunting" anymore. When I see the photo now, she just looks straightforwardly pissed.

Same with that beach photo here. I bet we're supposed to see the open mouth and wide eyes as hauntingly sexy and "guileless" like the article says and whatever. I can't help seeing WTF dude, excuse you instead.
posted by nebulawindphone at 1:18 PM on March 9 [8 favorites]


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