Joel Meyerowitz: Sea change

Photographer shows his affection for a lost America

Joel Meyerowitz: Between the City and the Sea may be as much of a remedy as we will get to drought and the incipient chill of fall.

His photographs of the beckoning sapphire ocean, buttery sunlight, downy sand dunes and leisurely summer days marked by swirl cones and watercolor dusks conjure up lost, long days far from our brisk, time-addled present. The 69-year-old, highly respected photographer's exhibition of work spanning from 1976 to 1988 covers a broad range of visual material: Atlanta in the 1980s, the seaside of Cape Cod, a St. Louis ball field and a Florida tourist motel, among other places and people.

What the images have in common is a gentle affection for an irretrievable America defined by leisure, time and a sly, unfussy loveliness where both fluorescent light and natural beauty play their part. Meyerowitz's panorama of place is expansive, incorporating both landscape and people: from gas stations at dusk to freckled girls dappled with the marks mothers euphemistically refer to as "sun kisses‚" and their teenage hosts blot out with makeup and skin bleach.

The first image viewers will see upon entering the show is "Eliza," from 1982, of a lovely girl straddling that poignant line between child and adult. Her plump baby face sits on a woman's body that is refreshingly ungroomed, her arms marked by sun-bleached blond hair. As in Rineke Dijkstra's photographs of young people at the beach, the setting endows the girl with profundity. Standing on a knotty wharf at the edge of the sea, she becomes even more emblematic of life's divides. Between the City and the Sea explores cusps both human and geographical, as seen in Meyerowitz's contrast of new Atlanta and old in a small selection of images of the city.

Many contemporary photographers have taken note of the soullessness of the mundane American landscape: the disturbing banality of American discount stores and hotel atria seen through the lens of Andreas Gursky or the tainted landscapes of Richard Misrach. But Meyerowitz's orientation is toward the captivating, tender contours of American life. Shooting with a large-format camera in the emotion-infused color he has become known for since the '60s, his images radiate a quiet power, a sense of humor and an awareness of how even the simplest places, "a small town drugstore neon-bright in the encroaching night," can feel charged with expectation and ordinary beauty.

The soft light in Meyerowitz's "Laundry, Cape Cod," (from 1982) of bed sheets whipped by the ocean breeze, might be an inconsequential, daily life vignette in another, lesser photographer's hands. But with Meyerowitz, you look at those wooden clothespins, that solid wood-frame house and sea beyond, and you can imagine all that came before and after: the mother barefoot, in a two-piece bathing suit padding out to hang that cold, clammy wash.

The way such images capture the plain, unadorned dimensions of American life aches and pulses with a vividness that could be called romantic if the word didn't feel too grandiose a description of their inherent serenity and simplicity. Take, for instance, Meyerowitz's image "July 4, Provincetown." The American flag has been so contentious and so badly employed by now that an image of it might seem jingoistic or cloying. But in Meyerowitz's image, the soft, faded texture of a flag displayed hanging from a simple house has the lived-in, familiar quality of a pair of well-worn jeans. This was not a flag bought at Wal-Mart smelling of protective chemicals, but an old, familiar object kept like a treasure.

Meyerowitz is a devotee of off-frame space. He uses space like a filmmaker, teasing us with what we can't see. In a wonderfully content-packed image, "Ballston Beach," a cocksure lifeguard sits on his wooden throne, his elbows-thrown-back posture suggesting the reigning king of the seaside. A quartet of surfboards sits at the base of his lifeguard chair like expectant girls waiting for his shift to end. Though on first glance all of the photo's action appears to center on the lifeguard, at the margins a chicken fight is underway, the faces of the taut teens unseen but their frenzied actions clear. Other boys and men on the beach watch with the envy of guys who don't currently have chicks wrapped around their necks.

And in an idea that could certainly have been explored further, to tease out the parallels between the America that was and the America that is, the gallery has included just two images from Meyerowitz's Aftermath post-9/11 series. The only photographer allowed access to the cleanup site at Ground Zero, Meyerowitz captures the surreal decay of the dream of America delivered in earlier work.

In Aftermath those same flags are now tattered and Manhattan suddenly resembles the war zones of Beirut or Bosnia. The iconic American symbol of might, industry and progress, "the skyscraper," is reduced to a gray rubble.

The work is all the more profound next to the Dairy Land ice-cream shops, the suggestion of soft breezes and carefree days in the courtyard of a tacky Florida motel – a faraway dream of America touched by nostalgia and the pang of what was.

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