Provincetown / Joel Meyerowitz / Reviewed by Robin Titchener


Photographs by Joel Meyerowitz
Aperture, 2019
160 pages, 100 four-color images
10 5/8 x 12 5/8 inches
Reviewed by Robin Titchener

I have very fond memories of Cape Cod. In 1999, I spent a couple of wonderful weeks holidaying in the US. Starting in New York, three friends and I started a week of culture galleries and running around. For contrast, we decided to move on to the relaxed, gentle beauty of this pretty peninsula—all seaside towns, local bars and blissful inertia.

We flew from New York to Boston and meandered along the coast, intending to stop and book rooms as we went. Unfortunately, our introduction to the area was not exactly as we had hoped. We pre-booked our first stop, ensuring we had somewhere to stay after traveling down. However, on arrival, we were greeted with a somewhat (shall we say) reserved welcome. It would seem that four men traveling together and sharing rooms was not exactly the “done” thing back then (yes, those dark Stone Age days of the late nineties). Now admittedly, one of us did have a beard, and we were probably a little too familiar with the Judy Garland songbook, but we weren’t exactly in leather vests, carrying a portable hoist either (beware anyone who sniggers at that a little too quickly).

Regardless, we signed in and set about exploring. One of the highlights of the area was the Plymouth Rock—cue general chorus of “I thought it would have been bigger,” and no, I didn’t feel guilty saying this because every American I ever meet says the same thing about Stonehenge.

Upon returning to the hotel for dinner, word had obviously gotten out that “Dorothy’s fan club” was in town—a fact highlighted by our being the target of a young waiter (who probably WAS the only one in the village, if you get my drift). He spent the next hour or so hovering very close to our table, most likely just relieved to be in the presence of his people.

The general consensus was that we would happily stay another day in the area and continue looking around (and being fey, obviously). So Kevin, our stalwart organizer (Bette to my Barbra), and I wandered out to reception to be greeted by a middle-aged woman who, having laid eyes on us, adopted the look of a person being diagnosed with something incurable. “Good evening,” beamed the perpetually cheerful Kevin who, I should add, is from Dublin, and by default almost impossible to dislike, “We were just saying how lovely we thought this area is. Weren’t we, Robin ?” “Absolutely,” I chimed in. Now I should say that this was in the days of old style reservation books. “So we would like to book in for another . . .” continued the Cashmere Celt. “We’re full.” The force of that book slamming shut would have taken our handlebar moustaches off . . . if we had had them.

And that was our first taste of Cape Cod. We checked out the following morning leaving some fond memories, but mostly a tearful waiter.

Don’t worry, there is a review in here. It’s on its way.

The intention was always to have ended up in Provincetown, the jewel at the very tip of Cape Cod. Kevin had done his homework and this little town, of which I had previously been unaware, was promising to be one of the major highlights of the trip. When we arrived at its outskirts, we were greeted with lots of pretty little houses, the sort that form the backbone of the area. However, they also retained that clipped and slightly prim feel that we encountered earlier. “Well,” said one of us, “So much for Gay Town USA,” and then we rounded a corner into what was obviously Main Street. What a difference one little corner made. I hate to sound dramatic (yeah, right) but there may have been a gasp, probably from Kevin (very emotional, from Dublin, yadda yadda). There was a bunting spanning the street as far as the eye could see, people milling around and the sound of laughter and chatter everywhere. Full on Carmen Miranda mode. We had arrived. 

It has been a little while since I thought about that holiday, but I have Joel Meyerowitz to thank for bringing it all back. As a summer resident of Provincetown through the 70s and 80s, his comfort and familiarity with both the area and its inhabitants shines through.

As a book, Provincetown is a beautifully presented hardcover, consisting of one hundred images, many never previously published. As one would expect from Aperture, the design, printing and overall production are exemplary, and of course, Meyerowitz’s gorgeous colour photography is reproduced to the highest of standards.

Predominantly a collection of portraits, there are just enough of those wonderful Meyerowitz street details and landscapes to punctuate the relaxed vibe of this jewel of a town. The Cape Cod light bathes every image in a glow that is as comforting as a warm blanket on a cold night, but the real warmth comes from the intimate contact captured between Meyerowitz and his subjects.

Hardly stolen street shots, they were all taken on a large format 8×10 wooden camera which he lugged around the area. He is quoted as saying “I would cross the street or walk over the sand and say, ‘I need to make a portrait of you’. When I presented it that way and I had this six foot tall camera with me, made of wood with a dark cloth hanging off of it and looking 19th-century, people were slightly stunned.”

To capture the people is one thing, but to capture a mood is an entirely different proposition. The intimacy achieved in these pictures is astonishing. One image entitled Wendy (1978) shows a woman in a brightly colored outfit, standing outside a café, resplendent in her pantsuit, the pastel ice cream colored shades of the day enveloping her. A diorama: the promise of fish and chips, the presence of parked cars, and a carrier bag at her side. A pure Provincetown tableau.

There’s Cynthia and Larry (1982), a couple sitting on a wall, the ocean and the horizon ahead of them, a wondrous panoramic vista rolling out as if just for them. But it is only each other they see: the contrast of her white skin against the black of his, their hands crossing on the surface of the wall. It could be so contrived, yet it really does look as if they have been caught unawares, as if the movement a black cloth and the scraping sound of a wooden tripod in the background were nothing more than waves and gulls.

Ann (1982), sitting nude, crosses her legs in the sea, the water lapping around her midriff. The ocean’s dappled surface pixelates her nakedness beneath it. Not that she cares one iota, her natural state as comfortable and ordinary as if she were fully clothed and standing in a bus queue.

Andrea and Bernard (1980). If I had to select one favorite image, it would be this one. The couple stands on a street corner, Andrea holding a bicycle, its retro handlebars the only hint of the era in which the picture was taken. Bernard’s striped sweater allows Meyerowitz’s skill with color to come to the fore. The reason I love this picture, though, is for a wonderful background detail: the simple rickety fence behind them. It’s a memory that takes me back to my own brief visit to this magical town. The detail of the fence resonates as much as the stunning coastline our landlord called Peaches or “Tea with Mussolini” . . . but that’s another story.

The sexual orientation of Meyerowitz’s sitters is never disclosed, and indeed there are family groups and youngsters included in the portfolio (legendary author Norman Mailer is pictured with his son, John Buffalo).

It is, however, the town’s relaxed attitude, and the fact that it was, and still is, known to be a welcoming safe haven for the LGBT community, which means the presence of gay men and women shine through the collection. In this respect, the book can also be viewed as a statement on the pre-AIDS era.

All the pictures in Provincetown were taken in that window of time following the rise of the gay rights movement (a time in which people were being more open and relaxed about their sexuality), but preceding the years when the disease devastated the gay community. Ripping through it and casting a shadow that would have been as profound as the deadliest storm clouds that could ever pass over this idyllic refuge.

Meyerowitz has captured the innocent warmth of a community about to undergo its most dramatic challenges. Whether any of the individuals within the covers of Provincetown were directly affected is not known or discussed, and it is not the purpose of this project. What is purposeful, however, is the capturing of Provincetown’s spirit and humanity, its hug of approval. By embracing both the people and the community, Mr. Meyerowitz has most definitely succeeded in achieving that purpose.

I am happy to confirm that Provincetown is indeed a special place, and that this is a special book.