This Side of Paradise

Provincetown BY Joel Meyerowitz. Aperture. 160 pages. $75.

In Provincetown, a collection of portraits taken in the late 1970s and early ’80s, Joel Meyerowitz captures bodies amber-locked in the beach town’s summer lassitude. The photographer discovered some of his subjects by placing, in the local paper, an ad in search of “REMARKABLE PEOPLE”; others he plucked from crowds with what he calls a “visceral knowing.” Located at the hooked tip of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, Provincetown is buffeted on all sides by the mercurial Atlantic. The town’s reputation as a sanctuary dates back to the seventeenth century, when it was a port for weary Pilgrims on the way to Plymouth, but is perhaps best known now as an artist’s colony and a polestar for LGBTQ life.

Meyerowitz found in Provincetown a beachside iteration of Greenwich Village. He encountered a dazzling cast, among them John Waters, Mary Oliver, Annie Dillard, Robert Motherwell, and Norman Mailer, who appears here incongruously gentle, holding his young son in dappled light. Meyerowitz’s initial work as a street photographer in the ’60s taught him a certain visual athleticism—in the city’s human deluge, how else to catch the moment off-guard? By the time he traveled to the Cape in 1976, he’d traded his 35mm Leica for a large-format Deardorff, switching out freeze-frame briskness for slow-speed color-film and a tripod-bound 8 x 10 camera. In interviews, Meyerowitz has described photography as a heuristic for seeing and feeling, a way of observing how the wholeness of sensory experience can be arranged in the closed arms of a frame. The early Cape Cod photos, first published in the 1978 book Cape Light, taught him something new: In spare landscapes and quiet interiors, Meyerowitz trained his attention on modulating light filling static spaces. Shots of interiors caught daylight journeying across a home’s obstacles—corners, hallways, the varnished bend of a wooden banister. Outside, the sky’s moods inked their way along the horizon in sprawling landscape shots. The Provincetown portraits transpose those lessons to the human form, mostly centered in the frame in shallow focus, unlike the oblique angles and busy backdrops of his 35 mm work.

Of an early portrait subject, Meyerowitz writes, “She seemed to be unfolding before my eyes, as sunlight illuminated flesh and cloth.” What flesh, what cloth! Provincetown’s subjects, though largely white, span gender, age, and sexuality. A brief sample: a woman swathed in bubble-gum-pink micro-pleats and a gossamer lilac scarf, reclining in the sand with a gold-clipped cigarette; a lithe man in a thick-striped unitard; another, dressed as . . . an ear of corn, complete with a silky green jacket of a husk. There are mothers with their children, uncannily doubled; friend groups that tessellate lazily; single figures who claim the frame with a forthright tilt of their bodies. Many of the photos were taken in the full, unwavering glare of the daytime sun, but I’m drawn to those captured in the last seconds of dying light: the golden hour of blazing silhouettes, and its afterlife of crepuscular blue. Fleeting light for the faces of a fleeting decade—though, even now, the sun still sets the same way.