The mid sixties were very early times for color photography, it wouldn’t be until 1976 that William Eggleston would have the first one man show of color photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which makes it fairly remarkable that half of the six hundred rolls of film shot by Meyerowitz in Europe ten years earlier were color photographs, it happened to be color film that was in his small rangefinder on the warm day in Paris in 1967 when he came across a remarkable scene.
The junction of Boulevard Haussman and Rue La Fayette is very busy, on one corner is the huge ten story Paris department store Galleries Lafayette and opposite is the large classical structure of the Societte Generale Bank. On another corner is the Metro station entrance with its low green metal railings and steps sloping down and away below ground, but in 1967 the Metro station still had its original beautiful and iconic Art Nouveau railings designed in 1900 by Hector Guimard. It was these railings and this Metro entrance way that Joel Meyerowitz saw in 1967 as he arrived, camera in hand, at an extraordinary and perplexing scene. The junction was busy with traffic at a stand still and commuters and shoppers were bustling to get down the stairs to the Metro, a bus was passing behind them. In the center of all this was that ‘extraordinary’ element that makes the heart of a street photographer flutter, a well dressed young man is lying on his back on the floor, his arms splayed above his head as if he’s just hit the ground but we see he has also rolled under the metal chains of a fence, one of them just grazes his stomach. This immediately raises questions in the mind, has there been an accident? is he drunk? we feel a certain empathy, concern for his well being. This concern is reflected in the faces of those around him, the commuters look on, one holds a rolled up newspaper to his mouth as he watches, a cyclist stops to see what’s happening. Then we slowly realise that it is more likely that he is having a fit or a seizure, a medical problem and our concern becomes tempered with a certain revulsion, this is not just an accident, an act of God, there’s something wrong with him. Now we see, also, this revulsion in the faces of the passers by and we realise that actually there are fifteen people here who are not helping this temporarily disabled and fallen man, fifteen people who are visibly wrestling with how they feel and what they should do. The fallen young man reminds them and us of our vulnerability and its something we all prefer not to consider, he got up this morning, ate his Croissant, put on his suit and tied his red tie and now he is lying incapacitated on the dirty Paris pavement.
This emotionally complex scene is made fabulously special by the moment Meyerowitz selected to make his picture, the tension is heightened by the arrival of a stocky workman in big boots and a flat cap who gingerly steps over the motionless body of the fallen man holding an enormous hammer. This workman adds a wonderful humor to the scene, I don’t think anyone really believes he has knocked the young man down but we make the connection in our minds and a smile is forced across our lips. But, again, our feelings are short lived because here is a man who is actually stepping over a fellow human being in need, completely free from concern, he continues with his work. As Joel Meyerowitz later wrote:
“Which is the greater drama of life in the city — the fictitious clash between two figures that is implied, or the indifference of the one to the other that is actual?”
This is one small drama on one street in one small city in one small country, it affects just a handful of people for a brief period of time, even in the photograph itself there are people stuck in traffic, passing on the bus and cleaning windows in the background who are all oblivious to the fallen young man….but the ‘presence’ of the street photographer, both physically and mentally has brought this tragic/comic drama into view for many thousands.
...NT — What can you tell us about that day and the circumstances around the making of that shot?
JM — I was out on the Right Bank just strolling (I was a ‘flaneur’ without knowing the word existed) and came to this Metro stop and noticed a crowd and a man down and as I inserted myself into the space to get closer this worker with the hammer came quickly around the pole to make his way to some construction going on behind me, and BOOM! as he stepped over the man it all came together....
[Entire interview at https://medium.com/@NickTurpin/falling-for-the-street-d0e86914b06]
...Asked to pick out his best street shot, the image he picked above all others was taken on a Parisian street corner in 1967...
”A young man lies on the sidewalk with his arms outstretched. A workman with a hammer casually steps over his fallen body. A crowd stands at the entrance to the métro, stunned by curiosity into inaction. A cyclist and a pedestrian each turn over their shoulders to catch a last glimpse, while around them the traffic glides by. Which is the greater drama of life in the city: the fictitious clash between two figures that is implied, or the indifference of the one to the other that is actual? A photograph allows such contradictions to exist in everyday life; more than that, it encourages them. Photography is about being exquisitely present.”
The lines and geometry of the shot are beautiful, as is the unconscious display of public manners. Yet it’s the mystery and dissonance of the moment caught that perhaps draws us back to the shot, as Joel recognized when he described its qualities to the Huffington Post.
“Best is a superlative,” Joel explained, “yet for any artist best also signifies a work from different periods of development and growing consciousness. Here, in Paris, 1967, the photograph provoked me to consider: which is the greater drama of life in the city: the fictitious clash between two figures that is implied, or the indifference of the one to the other that is actual?”...