By Harald Johnson
A large exhibition of work at a prestigious world-capital museum is the dream of many fine-art photographers. The dream recently became a reality for fine-art photography legend Joel Meyerowitz, and I decided to follow the steps Joel took to bring his exhibit to life. Here is a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Joel's "Out of the Ordinary" exhibition at the Jeu de Paume/Site Sully museum in Paris. You may not be a Joel Meyerowitz just yet, but when you are, you'll by ready!
STEP 1 - THE CONCEPT: The idea for Joel’s Jeu de Paume exhibit originated with the museum's curator, Michael Houlette, who had seen Joel’s work at an exhibition in another location. He contacted Joel and basically said: "We have four galleries and can display 120-150 prints. What would you like to do?"
"I decided to show the 10-year period from 1970 to 1980, which was a crucial moment in my evolution as a photographer," says Joel. "This was when I shifted from 35mm street photography to 8x10 view camera photography. This was the body of work I wanted in this exhibition."
STEP 2 - SELLING THE IDEA: Joel's next step was to put together a rough selection of about 200 pictures and fly to Paris, where he presented the work to the director of the Jeu de Paume (Regis Durand) and to the curator. "I showed them a PowerPoint presentation along with a handful of prints — vintage dye transfers and RC prints, and also contemporary prints I had made on my HP Designjet 130. The prints were representative of the sizes and the quality they could expect." The director and the curator told Joel on the spot that they were willing to go ahead with the exhibition.
STEP 3 - PLANNING & EDITING: To understand the museum space and to figure out how many images of what sizes he would include in the exhibition, Joel started with the floor plan of the museum gallery and some installation shots from another person's show, both provided by the museum.
"When you're working with a small space, it's easy enough to just lay it out in your head. But with a larger or more complex space, you need a plan,” explains Joel. “Because I divided the show into both vintage prints from my archives and modern digital prints, I ended up with a final count of 40 vintage and 80 modern digital prints, with two eventually dropping out because there wasn't enough room."
Next came the editing-down process. "When I work with a show," says Joel, "I take my entire edit, in this case 200 pictures, and I create 2 x 3-in. cards of the work. I carry these cards around with me, and whenever I have time, I sit with them and lay them out or run through them in order. But even before I do that, I sit with the pictures either projected on the wall or in rough print form so that I assimilate my deepest feelings about the pictures. That way, when I have little 2 x 3-inch cards, it isn't only about a design preference, it's about the emotional content. I try to study the pictures so I understand how they worked for me when I made them and what they mean to me now years later."
In a video in the Creative Workflows section of this site, Joel equates creating the show selection and image sequences to music. "I'm creating 'runs,' which I think of as musical chords. When I put four pictures up on the wall in a run, the public might see them as 1-2-3-4, but others will also see them as one entity, like a chord on a piano keyboard. When people approach a gallery wall, they glean the whole impact of the wall, or a segment of the wall. And then they move in to read the content of the first picture, the second, the third, the fourth. And if you are really considering the meaning of these pictures, you can set something up so that by the time they get to the third picture, for example, the resonance of the first one and the second one are now impacting the third and hopefully building an overall sense of meaning or possibility."
STEP 4 - THE MOCKUPS: Once Joel had his sequence organized, he needed to apply the pictures to the actual rooms and walls at the museum. Using the floor plans provided, "I tried to imagine entering the room as if I were the visitor. Would I make a lefthand turn and work the room left to right? Or would I start by going directly to my righthand side? I consulted with the curator to see how people generally flowed through their rooms, and the consensus was that people came in and started on the lefthand side and worked around clockwise. So I created my own floor plan, inserting mini versions of the images at each spot on the walls, and even adding a new wall in the middle of the main room."
In addition to the modified floor plans, Joel took the extra step of creating actual models of the rooms with foamcore and gluing mini images at their scaled sizes in place in their correct spots.
STEP 5 - PRINTING: Joel's Jeu de Paume exhibition is the world's first public exhibition of prints made on the new HP Z Series pigment inkjet printers. Since Joel didn't yet have a Z printer at the time, the 80 contemporary prints had to be produced at the main HP large-format inkjet headquarters in Barcelona, where the printers are designed and developed.
"I sent my assistant Jon Smith to Barcelona where he did some of the initial test printing. He then trained the onsite printmaker in how we see things,” says Joel. “Jon couldn't stay, and the printmaker in Barcelona finished the work and shipped the flat prints back to us in New York with a couple of back-and-forths for corrections and final approval. The HP prints were superb."
STEP 6 - MOUNTING & FRAMING: All the HP prints were shipped back to Joel in New York, where he had them professionally mounted and laminated (Joel typically laminates his large inkjet prints with a protective, optically clear laminate). The mounted and laminated inkjet prints plus the flat vintage prints were then crated and shipped to the museum in Paris for framing.
"The museum will usually take responsibility for framing," says Joel. "Everything was framed in matching white-painted wood frames with glass coverings on the vintage work."
STEP 7 - INSTALLATION: Joel arrived in Paris four days before the Jeu de Paume opening to help with the installation, but he had sent Jon ahead several days before that so he could work with the museum staff laying out the show and making sure they followed Joel's plan.
"Lighting was a big issue," explains Joel. "When you get to a show, you have to light every picture. But museums have their own standards. They don’t like a lot of light because they're afraid they're going to burn out the pictures. And I happen to like a lot of light! So when Jon alerted me to this, I had them go out and buy extra lighting cans and boost the illumination so that the pictures would glow."
STEP 8 - THE OPENING: Although I didn't attend the official opening of the exhibition in Paris on October 2, 2006 (the French call it a "vernissage"), I was able to take a private tour with Joel a few days before. Joel tells me that the vernissage was packed with a who's who of the photo world in France, Europe, and the world. In fact, I have since learned from Joel that the museum is breaking its all-time attendance records with this show. "They are expecting 30,000 visitors by closing day," explained Joel. "It's their biggest exhibition ever; the prior record was 18,000."
The Joel Meyerowitz "Out of the Ordinary" exhibition (partially sponsored by HP) at the Jeu de Paume/Site Sully runs until January 14, 2007. After this, the show travels to the Museum of Modern Art in Salzburg, Austria. They have already sent Joel their floor plan to start planning the next exhibit.
Left: Joel Meyerowitz before the "vernissage."