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Book of the Week: Selected by Blake Andrews

Book Review Wild Flowers Photographs by Joel Meyerowitz Reviewed by Blake Andrews “We live in a world in which we are bombarded by images. Thousands of them hit our eyeballs every day through various channels: TV, Internet, video games, print, vernacular reality, and good old-fashioned photographic prints. The deluge is so constant that it might be hard to remember a time when reality’s mediation was less pervasive..."

Wild Flowers. By Joel Meyerowitz.
Wild Flowers
Photographs by Joel Meyerowitz

Damiani, Italy, 2021. 128 pp., 9½x12¼".

Joel Meyerowitz’s photobook Wild Flowers has long been a personal favorite. Although it was published in 1983 it has always felt like more of a seventies book to me. Most of its photos were shot in that decade or the late 1960s, a time when street photography was ascendant, and one could still make some headway in the art world scavenging aimlessly with a camera. Wild Flowers came at the tail end of this era, and Meyerowitz was determined to close the door with an exclamation mark. His flower photographs seemed to declare all subjects up for grabs. Perhaps the genre boundaries had morphed like funk into disco into new wave.

Wild Flowers was ostensibly a book of flower pictures. But that was merely a visual convenience, for most the photos were not really about flowers at all. In fact, the nominal subject sometimes required some sleuthing to spot. They were inadvertent subjects, “gathered unknowingly” in various locations by Meyerowitz’s Leica and later “stumbled upon” in editing, as described in the book’s afterward. Like the best photographs, these flower pictures could not be cultivated. They had to be found by chance in the wild, and the sheer variety of Meyerowitz’s hunting grounds was astounding. He found many while prowling the streets of Manhattan. But a flower might bloom just as easily in a desert vista, a bedroom wall, a tattoo, or a tablecloth. Mix up these scenarios into a book stew and the result created a wonderful sense of anticipation. It left me disarmed as I browsed the pages, with no idea where the next unlikely flower would be spotted.

If Wild Flowers was about the thrill of the hunt, eventually the book came to operate a bit like a wild flower itself. Copies became scarce, as it fell out of print and scattered on the secondhand winds. I still remember the rush of discovery as I stumbled on a rare first edition years ago in a small used bookshop in rural Maine. Some years later I was with a friend when he hit a similar lucky strike in Stockholm, spying Wild Flowers on a back shelf posed like some rare orchid ready to be plucked.

For those who have had less success gathering Wild Flowers, there’s good news. A new edition has just been published by Damiani. The basic bones are intact, but they’ve been substantially revamped. The image volume has grown by almost a third, from 63 to 81. The book itself has grown taller and thicker, transforming from landscape to portrait format. Since the majority of pictures are still horizontal, the layout has loosened up to accommodate the mix of formats. Whereas the original kept a steady rhythm of one photo per page, with uniform size and placement, the Damiani edition showcases a variety of layouts. Some photos spill through the gutter. Some stay on their page. The vertical shots are given room to stretch out to full book height. The variety feels altogether more contemporary and visually active than its predecessor.

As for the images, there have been changes there too. Meyerowitz has injected roughly twenty new photographs shot in the intervening years since 1983. He has also spiced in a few older pictures which had been previously overlooked, some quite strong. A photo of two men in New York City strolling with toddlers is a bravura display of timing and visual balance. A shot from Little Italy is just as poignant, if less of a decisive moment. With minimal hues and ambiguous layering it resembles a colorized Friedlander. The palette and precision of these pictures show Meyerowitz near the height of his powers (the book came roughly midway between his landmark monographs Cape Light and Summer’s Day). That neither photo was chosen for the original is somewhat of a mystery, or perhaps just a lesson on the whims of editing.

To make room for the new material, a handful of the original pictures have been weeded out, most notably those of Meyerowitz’s first wife Vivian Bower. She made a strong impression in the original, earning the book’s dedication. But alas, times change. They have since divorced and Vivian has disappeared from the new book. In her place are several photos of his current wife, the ever-smiling Maggie Barrett, who brightens the mood of all her photographs. If a few veer into mawkish mugging, it’s forgivable. She is Meyerowitz’s biggest fan, and her erudite foreword lends the book a positive spirit.

All of the photos in the new version have been color corrected to contemporary standards. This can be attributed to improved technology, and also perhaps to Damiani’s photobook expertise (the original publisher, Little, Brown, and Co. dealt mainly in text-based books). Some readers may have found a certain charm in the over-saturated tones and Kodachrome colorcast of the original. But I consider the updated colors an improvement. For whatever it’s worth, they hew closer to the reality of the original scenes. My only gripe is that with some of the additions shot recently, the representations are almost too real. Exposed using high-end digital cameras, Meyerowitz’s recent work manifests a hyper clarity similar to HD television. It would be scarcely noticeable on its own. But mixed in with the sometimes muddy resolution of his older photos, the contrast can be jarring.

After the considerable changes mentioned above, a reconfigured sequence seems only natural. Indeed Meyerowitz has made adjustments here too. One can still find the skeleton of the old progression, but its traces are faint. The opening few images of the Damiani book maintain some fealty to the original. Some of the two-image spreads are the same as the first edition, including one of my favorites, which matches a sultry dance with an enormous floral eruption. Many photographs seem to appear in positions roughly parallel to their former appearance. But by and large, the sequencing changes are dramatic. Taken as a whole, the alterations dominate any lingering holdovers from the original.

Wild Flowers is a reprint. But by many measures, it can be considered a new title. Floral patterned end papers are a nice touch. Font, layout, and sequence are new. Meyerowitz may be entering his golden years but his drive to create new forms and reconsider old ones is just as strong as in 1983. “Making this new edition of Wild Flowers,” he writes in the afterword, “has given me the opportunity to do some weeding and transplanting as well as adding some newcomers. In that sense, this particular body of work is akin to gardening, in that it continues to be a work in progress.”

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Blake Andrews is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at