On May 3rd, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts will host an artist talk with the illustrious American street photographer, Joel Meyerowitz, in conjunction with their exhibition Visions of France: Three Postwar Photographers, which looks at the origins of street photography in Paris and its later American outtake.

Meyerowitz (b. 1938) turned to the camera in the early 60’s while working for an ad agency. He had been assigned to oversee a shoot with Robert Frank, known for the iconic book, These Americans. During the photo shoot, Meyerowitz was electrified by the subtle dance of Frank wielding his camera, the fleeting impressions caught in frame. He quit his job and took to the streets with a camera, often spending the day shooting with friend Gary Winogrand, during the heyday of American street photography’s unapologetic edginess.

Meyerowitz stuck to color photography when it was still marginalized by both the photo community and mainstream culture, paving the way for color as expression for a new generation of photographers. In a 1977 Cape Light interview with Bruce McDonald, Meyerowitz explained his dedication to color, “Color plays itself out along a richer band of feelings—more wavelengths, more radiance, more sensation.”

Over a prolific career Meyerowitz has also secured praise as a landscape photographer, most recently completing projects related to the World Trade Center aftermath and the wilderness of New York City’s parks. Presently he has returned to the subject matter of France, photographing Provence, making this exhibition, curated by VMFA Assistant Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Sarah Eckhardt, a timely one.

With Visions of France, Eckhardt has interfaced three seminal photographers from the museum’s permanent (and mostly archived) collection to look at the origins and legacy of street photography. Robert Doisneau and Édouard Boubat were innovators in mid 20th century Paris, while Meyerowitz’s 1983 series, French Portfolio, exemplifies the more gritty American style. All three stalked the streets of Paris with an unsparing eye.

Boubat’s iconic photo, Lella, Brittany (1974), is said to have been Meyerowitz’s galvanizing first meeting with photography as art. Its presence in the exhibition, indeed as the image encountered just before Meyerowitz’s series, has a mythological feel. Meyerowitz plays with the quietness of his forbears while maintaining his gutty senses. He creates conversation with the tradition of street photography, as in the mirror-like compositions of Doisneau’s The Indignant Lady (1948) and his own Jeu de Paume.

The exhibition focus and artist event illustrates Eckhardt’s, and VMFA’s, commitment to looking afresh at the history of photography while supporting contemporary photography, bringing the two together in a sort of looping timeline, nonlinear and non-hierarchic, and alive in the right now.

Joel Meyerwitz will speak regarding his 50 years as a photographer at VMFA on May 3, 2012, 6:30pm. Tickets are required. Visions of France: Three Postwar Photographers will be on view in VMFA’s third floor Photography Gallery through July 8.

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