By Benjamin Marcus
Photographer William Meyers is seeing things. Usually, people; but also, their surroundings by way of the work they’re doing or the play they’re enjoying, or the places where they’re doing it. The emphasis, though, is on the seeing, rather than the things being seen. In that way, what we experience in his photographs is the present tense of being somewhere, of having a coincidental participation of events with him.
The theme of Meyers’s recent collection, Music New York, hung in a jewel box of an exhibit at New York City’s Art@840Masion, are the people involved in playing music in the many different settings that life in a big city allows. The reach is from downtown to Harlem and the boroughs, letting us witness a wide array of encounters.
With their blur of motion at the outer edges, their unaffectedly, gently cocked angles suggesting surreptitious, sometimes waist-height positioning of the camera, and their reliance on what ambient lighting might happen to be there, Meyers’s photographs immediately bring to mind the work of the great Garry Winogrand. But where Winogrand reveled in the conceit of happenstance, often forcing us to join him on his swift trip down sidewalks and into streets, Meyers lingers and offers us a few moments to get to know his subjects, without the winking self-consciousness that might turn attention back to the photographer.
In the case of these photos, that casual, though not unconsidered style of looking is particularly well aligned with their subject matter: the sometimes impromptu, sometimes rehearsed, but always immediate performance of music. From a toy piano sitting on the floor, to a baroque theorbo on a church stage, or a klezmer accordion in a crowded café, instruments and their players are caught in the throes of joy, deep focus, or whimsical impassivity, but always in medias res, with the camera letting us in on action already begun, or on the verge of happening. In some cases, that means music’s rhythmic expression by uniformed dancers, concentrated rumination by thoughtful listeners, or even its being ignored by hurried passersby.
In a Greenwich Village café, we’re sitting with Meyers at the end of a row of small tables listening to a quartet with people we don’t know as we sip a house wine. At the 14th Street subway, we stop for just a moment to lean over a handrail to see the echoing clatter of two guys drumming ecstatically on overturned buckets, the cropped bodies of commuters jostle past. Up in Harlem, we share the pride of serious-faced, choreographed dancers representing their community in a parade. But whether it’s buskers who play for tips we might offer from the curb, or the professional dancers of Alvin Ailey we can see through the crowd from our second ring, center seats at Lincoln Center, the focus is on human beings, and the live-action occurrence of their craft in real situations. That his subject is bound up with his method of looking makes his work figural, human, even humanist.
As a result, Meyers’s work is at odds with, or at least (and very happily) outside of, what passes for the “vanguard,” as anything that might be considered the current trend in contemporary art seems determined to have as its subject some ideological point to make, some social observation to expose, or some political lesson to teach. So much of what’s on show in galleries or museums today must rely on lengthy wall texts painfully explicating in turgid verbiage the alleged intentions of the artists’ work, begging the question, which is the work being called “art” – the thinly executed thing in the frame above or the longwinded essay printed below it? In contrast, Meyers’s work needs no such intervening device to convey what he’s doing, because what we’re doing in seeing his pictures is perforce what he was doing when he took them.
In this way they are much like drawing—made on the fly; not finessed, or at least not speaking of their finesse. And conveying the immediacy of our having just been there with him in the seeing. His unobtrusive camera seems to happen by chance—whether it’s upon street players singing in a doorway; or in the tightly framed confines of a nightclub or concert hall as seen from middle range—and we get the feeling we are there. Our pulse quickens. Our sense of expectancy sharpens, and our perception broadens. They generate an atmosphere we experience not vicariously or pseudo-intellectually, but extemporaneously and viscerally. Unsurprisingly, if still quite amazingly, its this being occupied with the essential visual activity of looking that makes William Meyers’s work so wonderful: he is making his enjoyment of a fleeting awareness into a shareable physical object. And that, by my account, is what art is supposed to do.
For anyone who’s stayed home more than they wished to recently, the show of work is almost wistful in mood, but ultimately redeeming of lost time. And that is quite a feat for still images to achieve.
For those visiting or living in NYC, you can reclaim some of your engagement with the world at The Armoury, 840 Madison Avenue. The show is up until May 15.
Benjamin Marcus is an architect, illustrator, and graphic designer in Manhattan.