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Learn From a Master: Analysis of Joel Meyerowtiz's Street Photography

There are photographers that are so masterful in their creation of images that they are worth studying in the hope you can siphon off some of their brilliance. In this video, watch as some of Joel Meyerowitz's legendary street photography is broken down and analyzed.

If you haven't heard of Joel Meyerowitz, I'm a little jealous as you can explore his work for the first time. He's one of America's most esteemed photographers of all time and his street photography, in particular, is of the highest caliber. While a lot of his work is black and white — as was necessary at one point in his career and then a conscious choice for many street photographers thereafter — Meyerowitz's eye for color is what has always attracted me to his work. So much of his most famous and successful street work has complementary colors at their centers, even if subtly.

Meyerowitz was also, of course, a master of composition in a way that only street photographers seem to be. That is, this heightened sense and sharpened eye for fleeting examples of pleasing composition that the photographer can not arrange nor freeze; they simply must be ready and waiting. While this is a tremendously difficult skill and requires some luck too, it does also call for complete mastery over a camera and its settings or the number of near-misses you will experience will put you in an early grave.

This video is a short exploration of some of Meyerowitz's most famous works and what elements make them so appealing.

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Robert Teague's picture

I loathe Meyerowitz's work.

Lee Christiansen's picture

I find these analytical studies hilarious...

It's possible to draw a line around almost anything and find a reason for the shape, space or position in an image.

I remember sitting through a tutorial where the wedding photographer explained how he had positioned the sun behind the bride as she walked in the church. The reality is, that is where the sun was - he hadn't positioned it anywhere, and where he took the shot from - well that was the only place he could be. He was dissecting the shots afterwards and finding reasons for why he'd done things.

The same is true for the first example in this video. The reality is, that is where the people were standing and they'd have that "relationship" with space or background from almost anywhere the photographer had positioned himself if he was to get that type of shot.

Street photography means we must accept that much of what we shoot is beyond our control. We see something that attracts our eye and if our eye is good then we get a good shot - with a bit of luck thrown in. I don't care how good someone is, they're not analysing the frame to this sort of level before taking the shot.

I have a wonderful image of two people embracing. But they're party obscured by a car window and as luck would have it, the man's head reflection is perfectly lined up with the girls face so the back of his head looks like the back of her head... Now if I was pretentious, I'd tell the story of how I'd carefully lined up the reflection and people in that split second we often have with perfect balance of genius - but the reality is that I didn't even notice until a friend pointed it out, (and I'd even retouched the shot...!) It's a good shot without the reflection because of the expressions, but the reflection...? I was lucky.

If anyone is interested, you'll find it somewhere in this bit of my portfolio:

And we see similar explanations with other tutorials where we're treated to swirly lines and curves, or pointy arrows drawn liberally everywhere to show "relationships."

Sometimes we try to see more than was intended. Sometimes the artist needs to be honest as to whether any of this was intended or designed. Sometimes as tutors, we need to accept that an image just looks interesting because the subject takes our fancy and not because 15 different diagonals intersect in the 5th quadrant. :)