You probably don't know his name, but Arthur Meyerson's images have furnished iconic marketing campaigns for Coca-Cola and Nike, and his editorial work helped kickstart early editions of Texas Monthly, that magazine likely sitting on your coffee table next to Houstonia. Meyerson's four-decade career has brought him to all seven continents and more than 90 countries, along with teaching workshops across the country. And while he isn't finished yet, he's ready to share some of what he's learned.
The Journey, Meyerson's second photo book, offers a behind-the-scenes look at an array of his personal and commercial work. We caught up with Meyerson to talk the new book and his thoughts on photography today.
There are so many artists that leave a place like Texas and go do their thing in a place like New York or Los Angeles. Why have you never left Texas or Houston after going pretty much everywhere there is to go?
It turned out that Houston was actually a good place to be at that time frame in the '70s—the oil boom was booming. That allowed for a lot of work to arise here in Houston. Still, I wanted to shoot for Nike, I wanted to shoot for Coca-Cola, I wanted to shoot for some of these bigger, more exciting companies. All of it sounds rather antiquated and we take it for granted, but the reality was the fax machine and FedEx really allowed you to live wherever you wanted to live and be able to do the work for companies anywhere, not only in the United States, but in the world.
If you laid it out a on table, a mix of your personal and commercial work, you probably couldn't tell which was which. You bring that artistic quality to your commercial work.
I couldn't ask for anything more than that. I never wanted it to look like an overly produced type of ad or photo. A lot of the time, photography is a performing art as much as it is a visual art. You just kind of learn to deal with what is handed to you. This business of the work having a similar feel between the commercial and the personal, I wanted that. I wanted the photos to have a natural look—a slice-of-life look, a look that was about a sense of place. Be it people, be it portraiture, be it industrial situation—whatever it was. You take the oil and gas industry, 90 percent of the time you're trying to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. You go to a place—they were pretty rough, they weren't beautiful—and you had to figure out interesting ways to make those places really come to life photographically. There's a big difference when there's a check attached to a photograph because no client is sending you halfway around the world to come back with an excuse why you didn't get the photo. Your job is to get the photo no matter what. If it's to shoot a new building in Nairobi, and you get there and the building hadn't been built, you still have to come back with a photograph.
At a magazine, we use a huge amount of stock photography, and there is an endless supply of bizarre employees smiling with file folders and other weird things. What do you think of that huge stock photography situation, of today's endless supply of imagery?
Everybody's a photographer now. Before that, most people didn't take pictures. It was this whole idea that you had to have a camera, you had to put film in that camera, you had to learn how to have a little bit of technical know-how—what to do and how to do it, even with a point and shoot. I don't begrudge anybody taking pictures. I think what it's done for me and other professionals is you've got this level of photographic noise. Everybody is trying to rise above that. We’re trying to figure out ways to make photographs that really are more interesting—that touch people in a certain way, that don't look like everything else that's out there, that have a little more meaning, a little more poetry. The people who are successful, be it commercial or not, are the ones who know how to do that. Before, not only were you hired because you knew how to take pictures, but you knew how to create in situations that weren't so great. You go into an office building, and what are you going to do to make that interesting? Well, we could easily spend a half day lighting for one shot. Now you could walk in and do that in two seconds with your iPhone. It's all color corrected—everything's there for you. Where digital has made photography easier, I think it's made it difficult for the serious photographer to create photographs to rise above all the others that are out there.
Going back to the Coca-Cola example, I’m looking at the guys in the water with the Coke and the chess table. These photos almost look staged with Cokes in the center. I'm sure that wasn't the case, right?
Yes and no. What Coca-Cola had been doing previously were very staged situations. They'd go to Los Angeles, they'd hire models and dress them up in costumes, and put them up against backgrounds that looked like China, looked like Ecuador, looked like whatever place and have happy, smiling people holding a bottle of Coke. They asked me what I would do instead. I said, 'Number one, you're an international' — they didn't use the term brand in those days — 'you're an international product. Let's go to those places, let's use real people, and let's see what we can do.' They said great, let's do it. We started traveling around the world. Literally we'd be going down the street or we'd be out in the countryside, and I'd see some interesting people, and I'd say let's get them.
For instance, you mention the shot in Budapest in the baths. I had gone the day before to scout the location. Four of those guys were there, they were playing chess. Our interpreter asked them if they would be there tomorrow, if they'd like to be in some pictures. All they'd have to do is play chess. They said fine. I set up, and I just started watching the situation. As time went on, one guy would drift in, and then another, and then another, and then another. That was totally unplanned, as far as all the people coming together. In other words, I kind of set the stage and I let the actors, the players, come in and do whatever they wanted. Other than giving a few bottles of Coke to set out there, that was it. I don't speak Hungarian. I didn't want to interrupt—I wanted it to be natural. The thing I was trying to show them was that product is so much part of life.
There's another shot that shows a Coca-Cola truck very, very small against a hillside and a bunch of little houses around it. That was in Norway. That was about 300 miles above the Arctic Circle where they had their northernmost bottling plant. They wanted to show something that talked about distribution worldwide. I was looking at taking that same truck and putting it on a bridge. Then I looked across the fjord, and I saw that scene. I thought we could use a Where's Waldo? approach. Let's just place Coke in a scene and let the scene take over, and people will find it.
Tell me about the extremes, going to Antarctica. How does your equipment react to that extreme weather?
You fly to the southern tip of South America—Ushuaia. From Ushuaia, we took our ship about a three day passage across the Drake Passage, which is known as either the Drake Lake or the Drake Shake. It can be two or three days of pretty rough water. On our trip down, I'd say about a third of the crew were seasick, a third had this upper respiratory thing, and a third were fine. I had the upper respiratory thing, but I managed to keep shooting.
I've shot a little bit of everything in my career, but in terms of my personal work, I wouldn't particularly say I'm a landscape photographer, although certainly I've shot my share of landscapes. Here I'm going to this white continent, and what the hell am I going to do? That kind of took care of itself. When I got there, I began to see everything's not white. There's the color blue. In blue, there were shades and hues that I'd never seen in the color blue before.
It was not balmy by any means, but we were dressed appropriately, so it wasn't terrible. They have Zodiacs—these small boats with rubber pontoons, basically—that take you out, you cruise within the icebergs. Or they take you onto the continent where you can explore the continent, photograph the penguins, any other wildlife that interests you. It truly was an adventure.
A lot of photographers talk about learning to be invisible, but they're still interacting with folks and obviously taking up physical space. Were you ever one of those people afraid to photograph people—the human element?
Honestly, it took me awhile to get used to shooting people. That's what I try to express to my students: Don't get upset, don't get put off. You're going to definitely get a 'no' thrown at you here or there, or a hell no, or even worse. But just deal with it. We're not doing brain surgery. We're not necessarily changing the world or saving lives, although there have been photographs that have done that. But for most of us, we're going out and we're enjoying ourselves and trying to do the best work we can. There's a lot to be said for that.
The Journey by Arthur Meyerson, from $85, available via arthurmeyerson.com.