Captivating color images capture America in the 1960s and '70s

Striking color photographs from the 1960s and ’70s capture America’s people, places and pompadours from St. Louis’ Gateway Arch to New York City street scenes and tourists at the Grand Canyon

  • Since 1962, Joel Meyerowitz, famed street photographer and color picture pioneer, has captured New York City street scenes, open spaces, the St. Louis’ Gateway Arch, the Grand Canyon and Cape Cod
  • Raised in the Bronx, he quit his ad agency job after seeing the legendary Robert Frank work and hit the streets
  • Meyerowitz used color film and became a ‘missionary’ for color, which once was considered ‘amateurish’
  • His latest book, Joel Meyerowitz: How I Make Photographs, has lessons for those looking to up their photography game and includes several indelible images that document the nation during the 1960s and ’70s

When Joel Meyerowitz was growing up in the Bronx in the 1940s, he often accompanied his father while he sold supplies to dry cleaners.

A salesman, boxer and the unofficial mayor of their Bronx block, his father had a knack for pointing out what might happen next – a hug, kiss, brawl – while they made their way throughout New York City.

‘He had an instinct,’ Meyerowitz told

Later on, this education served him well. After watching legendary photographer Robert Frank work, Meyerowitz ditched his job at an ad agency, borrowed a camera from his boss and hit Manhattan’s streets. Frank’s book, The Americans, which was published in the United States in 1959, remains seminal.

Since 1962, the famed street photographer and color picture pioneer has captured people and places in his native New York City and throughout the country from the Grand Canyon to Cape Cod to Florida.

The vibrant images chronicle people parade-watching, pompadours, crowded avenues and open spaces in the 1960s and ’70s and are now part of his new book, Joel Meyerowitz: How I Make Photographs. It offers lessons for those who wish to up their photography game, he said.

And for the photographer, now 82, one of his important rules is to never leave your camera at home.

‘To this day, I carry my camera wherever I go. Things happen when I step outside.’ 

In 1962, Joel Meyerowitz was 24. The native New Yorker quit his job at an ad agency after seeing legendary photographer Robert Frank work, borrowed a camera from his former boss and hit the streets of Manhattan. He told that he often went to parades when he first started out as a street photographer as a way to break through his shyness. ‘He was just so beautiful with that pompadour on his forehead,’ Meyerowitz said of the above image, New York City, 1963, which was taken at the Puerto Rican Day Parade. He noted that the street portrait, which is part of his new book, Joel Meyerowitz: How I Make Photographs, was taken quickly

After years of taking pictures of New York City, Meyerowitz eventually chronicled other parts of the country, such as Cape Cod. For the above portrait, Wellfleet, Massachusetts, 1977, he said he had been invited to a cocktail party while his family was living on Cape Cod. By then, he had switched from a 35mm to a large format camera, which he took with him everyone. ‘I see this beautiful young woman. She was just standing against the tree in a dream world,’ he recalled. From across the way, he let her know that he was going to take her picture. ‘She stood absolutely still,’ he told, adding that he only made one frame of this image

Meyerowitz, who was born in 1938, grew up in a working-class neighborhood in the Bronx. He often spent time with his father, a salesman who sold supplies to dry cleaners and the unofficial mayor of their block. He wrote: ‘My father also taught me to look at life happening in front of me. He would often whisper, “Joel, look at that,” or “watch this.” And wherever he pointed, something would happen. Somebody would slip on a banana skin, or bump into a pole or stop and have a conversation with someone and then they’d wrestle each other a little.’ In the above image, New York City, 1963, people watch a parade. He noted the ‘muted tones’ of their clothes

When Meyerowitz attended Ohio State University to study medical illustration, art history and painting, he worked as a waiter in the Catskills during his summer breaks. After he graduated in 1959, he went to Florida and landed a job as maître d’ at a hotel. ‘I had the time of my young life,’ he recalled. For the above image, Florida, 1967, he explained that he had been at the marina looking for a commercial shoot location when he saw the two women, the pebble walkway and the outstretched arm, which he called slightly ominous, and decided to take a picture

Meyerowitz, who was born in 1938, likened his working-class Bronx neighborhood to a small European village due to its immigrant population. People sat outside and engaged with one another. 

While he learned to pay attention to what was happening on the street from his father, photography was not on his radar. ‘It didn’t exist for me.’

Instead he studied medical illustration, art history and painting at Ohio State University and returned to New York City in 1959. After a brief stint doing medical illustration, he was soon working at an ad agency in the early 1960s.

Tasked with designing a booklet aimed at the (then new) teen demographic, Meyerowitz was sent to a shoot with a photographer he didn’t know: Robert Frank. Watching Frank work was transformative for Meyerowitz.

‘But in that hour and a half, the things he did were so astonishing, as simple as they were, that when I left the location and went out on the street, the world was alive to me in a way I had never before experienced. Every gesture, every incident on the streets seemed to have meaning,’ Meyerowitz wrote in How I Make Photographs. 

He quit his job.

But Meyerowitz had a problem: He didn’t own a camera. His now former boss lent him his Pentax.

In 1962, Meyerowitz started making photographs and tried to figure out his approach. He also roved the city with other photographers, like Garry Winogrand.

‘The street became the place I needed to be.’

He often went to parades to take pictures, he said, using them as a cover and as a way to break through his own shyness. He took portraits of people, like the young man with a pompadour sitting in his powder blue big car during the Puerto Rican Day Parade in 1963 and chronicled the stoop scene as New Yorkers watched the procession go by. 

Even in the early 1960s, some were still emerging from what had happened during World War II, which ended in 1945. After the war, the United States experienced an economic boom, the suburbs grew, and many bought cars and other consumer goods, such as television sets. ‘There was a new sense of prosperity in the country,’ Meyerowitz explained.

Nonetheless, there were pockets of people who were not part of that boom, he noted. He pointed out in one of his images from 1963 that people wore clothes with muted tones. ‘The fabrics and the dyes of that time weren’t like today,’ he said. 

The gray shades of the early 1960s would give way to the vivid colors of the 1970s. There was a lot of unrest and demonstrations – against the Vietnam War and those pushing for civil rights – during the 1960s in New York City, he said. 

The turmoil continued into the 1970s. Meyerowitz recalled that it was a funny time in the city: While it was dirty, crime-ridden and teetering on bankruptcy, it also was where culture and creativity was happening. Its wildness was an invitation to artists from around the country and they flocked to the then affordable city.

‘There was a rich broth of jazz, dance and art.’

Meyerowitz said that his latest book grew out of his participation in an online class series called Masters of Photography. In Joel Meyerowitz: How I Make Photographs, he wrote: ‘My process begins with having a sense of awe. When I start to feel that, I go with it. Keep your eyes open and see what you can discover.’ He told that the above image, Provincetown, 134 Massachusetts, 1977, is one his favorites. He took it around 8pm on a summer evening. ‘It seemed to embody Americana. It was like a dreamscape,’ he said, adding that ‘humble things transmit beauty and power beyond what they actually are’

In 1978, Meyerowitz was commissioned to photograph St. Louis, Missouri. ‘Buildings were being torn down, parking lots were going up,’ he recalled. ‘The city was being eviscerated.’ Meyerowitz decided to use the city’s iconic Gateway Arch as his Mount Fuji, a nod to artist Hokusai’s many landscape prints of Japan’s sacred mountain that he created in the 1830s. The above image, St. Louis, Missouri, 1978, features the arch as well as a cinderblock structure and two parked cars

Throughout his new book, How I Make Photographs, Meyerowitz, who has been a photographer for almost 60 years, offers many lessons, including being open to the unexpected and to humor. He wrote: ‘People often ask me, “How do you make a funny picture?,” to which I reply that I don’t know how – funny pictures just happen.’ About the above image, Grand Canyon, 1967, he wrote that he ‘was walking along the edge… when I saw a woman weaving herself into the railings where people aren’t supposed to go because they might fall thousands of meters. But this crazy lady with her handbag hanging off her shoulder did it anyway’

Above, New York City, 1976. Meyerowitz did not grow up wanting to be a photographer and he told that photography ‘didn’t exist for me.’ In his new book, How I Make Photographs, which he said he wrote to help people up their photography game, he pointed out: ‘Once in a while, and usually for the briefest of moments, we are startled by something out there on the street, right in front of us that makes us gasp with recognition of the pure beauty of that moment. The moment is already disappearing while the gasp fills our lungs and our minds light up. That is your photographic moment, and only you can know it’

Above, the cover for famed street photographer Joel Meyerowitz’s latest book. Meyerowitz’s career spans almost 60 years and he has published numerous books about the United States and Italy, where he now lives with his wife, the novelist Maggie Barrett. The book has several lessons for those who wish to learn more about how to practice the medium. ‘I’m like the tennis coach,’ he told

By the 1970s, the way he framed a picture was also changing. For example, in one image taken on 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue in 1974, he said ‘the mix and the mess’ was what interested him. The colors seem to jump out: The plum pants and rolled-up coral tank of a man on the left, the turquoise pants of a woman fixing the strap of her bright yellow heel and the busy pink design of a woman on the right. 

‘It was so exciting back then. I was really on fire,’ he told  

Since he started making photographs in 1962, Meyerowitz used color film. During that period, black and white was the standard for fine art photography.

‘It was always treated as if it was amateurish,’ he recalled. ‘It wasn’t taken seriously.’

Meyerowitz used two cameras: One with black and white film, the other with color. He said he became a missionary for color. ‘I believed in it so fiercely.’

Eventually in the 1970s, his work, William Eggleston and Stephen Shore’s images would bring color photographs into the fine art fold.

Meyerowitz started working outside of New York City and chronicling other parts of the country, such as Florida, Cape Cod, the Grand Canyon, and St. Louis, Missouri, where he was commissioned to photograph the city in 1978.

‘Buildings were being torn down, parking lots were going up,’ Meyerowitz said. ‘The city was being eviscerated.’

Meyerowitz decided to use the city’s iconic Gateway Arch as his Mount Fuji, a nod to artist Hokusai’s many landscape prints of Japan’s sacred mountain from the 1830s. One picture features the arch, a dome, a cinderblock structure, and two parked American cars.

Now living outside of Siena, Italy with his wife, the novelist Maggie Barrett, Meyerowitz hasn’t stopped: He is still making pictures.

In 1962, when Meyerowitz first went out to document New York City street life, he went with other photographers, like Tod Papageorge and Garry Winogrand. He often took pictures while people were watching parades, such as the image above, New York City, 1963. He noted the girl in the window with her arm flung out and the man with with the dark glasses in the picture’s foreground. He told ‘I was learning to make pictures that were more demanding’

When the above image, New York City, 1974, was taken Meyerowitz had been working for about 12 years. He said he ‘was trying to push the picture around so more than one thing was happening.’ Meyerowitz was at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue and noted the woman in turquoise fixing the strap of her bright yellow heel, the pink busy design of the woman on the left who seemed to be in line, and the man’s plum pants and rolled-up coral tank. ‘The mix and the mess and the chaotic engagement was interesting to me,’ he told ‘It was so exciting back then. I was really on fire’

In the 1960s, there was unrest and demonstrations – against the Vietnam War and people fighting for their civil rights – in New York City and across the country. Turmoil continued into the 1970s and the city was dirty, crime-ridden and teetered on bankruptcy. However, Meyerowitz also pointed out that it was a time when artists and creativity flourished in what was then an affordable city. He said the above image, New York City, 1976, on W 46th Street is ‘the ultimate example of chaos’     

‘The act of making a photographic portrait is one of those intimate moments of connectivity between human beings, between the photographer and his or her subject,’ Meyerowitz wrote in his new book, How I Make Photographs. ‘I’m not talking here about family album snaps, but rather about photographs that show the mystery, essential qualities, tenderness, physical beauty and magic people have when they express themselves, when they reveal themselves.’ Above, New York City, 1974

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