Fragile Paper Timeships: Photographs by Joel Meyerowitz, 1979–1989

Mount Holyoke College Art Museum • South Hadley, MA • • Through May 29, 2016

By: Carand Burnet

mh 2014 53 1 v1 01 hpr

Joel Meyerowitz, Ariel Meyerowitz, 1981, vintage chromogenic print. Gift of Shaun Lucas 2014.53.1 © Joel Meyerowitz.

Joel Meyerowitz’s photographs are infused with sunlight and a humid warmth, softening the landscapes, portraits, and still lifes featured in his exhibition Fragile Paper Timeships. Everyday, understated subjects transform under Meyerowitz’s application of light. A mystifying atmosphere illuminates each setting, where forms quietly evaporate into one another. In Paul Theroux and his Boat, Theroux stands before a backdrop of glistening water that deftly vanishes into the afternoon sky. A monochromatic palette of browns, tans, and golds engulf him. The piece leaves the viewer suspended in a moment of brief clarity before again diving into the obscurity of the scene.

The 30 images included in Fragile Paper Timeships came to fruition when Meyerowitz acquired a vintage 8-by-10 camera in the late 1970s. Having previously worked with a lightweight point and shoot, the heft of the 50-pound field view prompted Meyerowitz to reduce the speed of his working process. The resulting photographs, conceived under Meyerowitz’s patient eyes, exude the ambiance of an unwound summer day. Images like Ariel Meyerowitz demonstrate how the photographer adapts his technique. The artist’s daughter stands facing the viewer, her lips parted in mid-sentence. Meyerowitz’s camera captures her impression precisely; a rosy hue tints her portrait and an aura of light frames her face. The sandy background is blurred, bestowing full attention to the girl’s expression. Her gazing eyes give the viewer a look that seems to register minutes in a single instant.

Several of Meyerowitz’s seascapes, in contrast to the flaxen brightness of his other works, exude a smooth darkness. An impending storm portrayed in Longnook Beach (1983) frames the landscape in a pewter sheen. The shadowy ocean appears enduringly cold when compared with the sand dune’s rich hue. The vista’s ambiance relays the strange, otherworldly sensation of the storm as it approaches. Meyerowitz crafts each of his chromogenic prints with a delicate radiance. Ghostly nuances and gradations of chroma call to mind William Merritt Chase’s luminous paintings of the Shinnecock Hills. As with all of the wonders in Fragile Paper Timeships, Meyerowitz captures the forever-fleeting light, distilling it into a sustained memory.

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