On the road, speed is a guiding principle of design: attractions, billboards, the deceptively long (ten-foot) white stripes on our highways are all structured around the principle that time is fleeting and unfocused in the car. Car-time’s fugitive quality is familiar to anyone who’s ever glimpsed a photo-worthy scene, rummaged wildly for their camera or phone, and then missed the shot entirely, or, if they managed to fire one off, are rewarded with a faraway, terribly framed photo — a reminder of the slipperiness of time and place at high speed.
This is as true now as it was in the 1960s, when photographer Joel Meyerowitz, living abroad in Europe in 1966–67, spent a great deal of time on the road, trucking through France, Greece, Spain, Germany, Turkey, Bulgaria, Morocco, England, Ireland, Wales, and Scotland. Amid the long trips, Meyerowitz was repeatedly struck by the sights whizzing by on the roadside, transient and quotidian things and things remarkable in the way they mixed the two: a middle-aged couple on a motorcycle, the woman’s shawl billowing in the wind and accenting her half-smilling expression; a tall man all in black holding an infant all in white; a passing convertible with an unamused young woman in a bikini sitting atop of the car’s wicker seats. Meyerowitz’s sudden subjects display a mixture of surprise, reluctance, charm, and sometimes an unguarded glimpse of their day-to-day elegance. And all of it is suffused with the sense that, in an instant, everything will quickly be out of sight (but not out of mind).
On display at Howard Greenberg Gallery, European Trip: Photographs from the Car, 1968 presents 40 photos from the more than 2,000 that Meyerowitz took during his year abroad, only the second time these images have been exhibited in more than 50 years. That first time was a MoMA show in 1968 curated by photography impresario John Szarkowski. Impressed by the then young and unknown Meyerowitz, Szarkowski celebrated the pictures’ formal qualities and timeliness: “The pictures he made have to do with the character of photography itself, and with the fragmentation of modern experience, and also with the quality of response of Joel Meyerowitz, who made these irreversible observations while the car was moving.”
It’s now firmly a part of our collective memory that the ’60s were a decade of incredible social, cultural, and technological change. The year 1968, when Meyerowitz’s car photos were first exhibited, was an explosion of upheaval and uncertainty, a moment in which the world seemed to be at a stage of total crisis and opportunity. Meyerowitz’s project was a charged reminder of how fast things were moving, and how beautiful and uncanny life looked if you could just stop it, if only for a fraction of a second while time intractably raced on.
To snare these split-second shots, Meyerowitz became one with his camera, adjusting the f-stops by feel and conceiving of himself and the car as one big device:
I thought of myself as sitting inside a moving camera on wheels, and that the window was the frame which showed me the continuous scrolling of events flying by outside…Life along the roadside still whizzes by at 60 miles per hour, and even though we have all kinds of advanced mechanics, the camera continues to be the only instrument that makes ordinary things seem momentous when we glimpse them in passing and recognize their innocence and beauty.
It’s a description that draws an interesting parallel with the growing ubiquity of dash-mounted cameras (as in Russia) and Google Street View’s near endless and now timeline archive of street scenes and episodes. Artists have been investigating the spoils of Google’s all-seeing eye for some time: Jon Rafman’s uncanny 9-eyes, Doug Rickard’s artful, lo-fi street compositions, Alberto Rodríguez’s unnerving record of Mexico’s (and America’s) war against drugs. Separated by nearly half a century, Meyerowitz and these contemporary artists and technologies encapsulate a rapidly changing world but also, through their efforts to record and preserve, seek a kind of opposing permanence.
More interesting and revealing, however, are the ways they’re unalike. The differences between the two are like those between the fisherman who angles and she who trawls: the angler, suddenly finding something ahead, must immediately, sometimes improbably, endeavor to capture it, while the trawler gathers her quarry upon pulling in the net. For the angler there is the imaginative aura of battle, of plucking victory out of the ever-moving, unfathomable waters; she is the one who feels and sees and fights the fish, and perhaps watches as it squirms away.
Meyerowitz’s work — reactive, engaged, surprised, and surprising — is that of an angler, bustling with narrative potential and questions. Birthed in a peculiar state of speed and chance, his road trip photos are beguiling and often beautiful. These are the photos he managed to take, but also, by their nature, reminders of the ones he didn’t or that may have gotten away: Henri Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment at 60 mph.
Joel Meyerowitz – European Trip: Photographs from the Car, 1968 continues through May 31 at Howard Greenberg (41 East 57th Street, Midtown, Manhattan).