WHEN his laundry talks, photographer Joel Meyerowitz listens. ``It's a bathing suit and a towel and your socks, and for a moment they're flapping ghostlike on the clothesline -- and this humble, ordinary, unprepossessing thing which doesn't mean anything to you, speaks.'' A few moments with America's emerging king of color landscape photography help you discover why the sand, sea, sky -- and socks -- he catches on film speak more eloquently these days than the shots of many of his contemporaries. His subject is vision itself, the pleasure of seeing. To capture it, says Meyerowitz, one needs more than keen and watchful eyes -- one must keep ``open ears'' and an open mind.
``You have to clear your mind of what you think photography should look like. That `should' is fatal. It belongs to the world of photographic how-to-do-it books and camera annuals and all of the past.'' His speech is as smooth as the wind-blown dunes spread through his latest collection, published in book form as ``A Summer's Day'' (Times Books, $40), and headed for a major exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum this fall. Seven years in the making, the strikingly delicate, 65-print series is a rich visual index of Cape Cod architecture, landscape, and life as perceived and interpreted by the subtlest of colorists.
An ``overnight sensation 20 years in the making,'' as fellow color specialist Jay Maisel calls him, Mr. Meyerowitz is enjoying an ever-growing national reputation heralded by critics as everything from a New Romanticism to a photographic version of postmodernism. Credited with reintroducing the concept of pure beauty to an era dominated by increasingly abstract concepts, Meyerowitz has focused his lens on such lyrical subjects as ``Cape Cod Light,'' ``The St. Louis Arch,'' ``Wildflowers,'' ``Redheads.'' Fans call his photographs ``sensuous,'' ``sumptuous photos that breathe,'' and ``doorways you can walk through.''
``Joel is a master of color, mood, and light,'' says Estelle Jussim, an internationally known art historian, critic, and professor, who has featured Meyerowitz photos in her just-published inquiry into landscape photography. ``He knows what light will do to flesh . . . to water, to sand, to boats, to all kinds of textures. He is the equal of many Impressionist painters, as far as I'm concerned.''
Photography needed a way out of the past when Meyerowitz left his $55-a-week job as an art director's assistant back in 1962 to hit the New York streets with a 35-mm Leica. He wandered the boroughs with photography giants like Robert Frank, Gary Winogrand -- even Henri Cartier-Bresson. And he helped turn black-and-white photography on its ear by freezing fluid city life in stunning, personal visions of the ``captured moment.''
At the height of his success in 1970 in black and white, the Bronx-born Meyerowitz set out to challenge that medium as the dominant force in serious, expressive art photography. He put down his palm-size 35-mm camera and set out with a much more cumbersome view camera, complete with tripod and 8-by-10-inch color negatives. By many accounts, his explorations into the more poetic realm of painterly color and light itself have ignited the imaginations of serious photography students and those studying other forms of graphic art.
Now represented in New York by the Witkin Gallery, Meyerowitz has prints hanging in museums nationwide. His work has been widely exhibited at New York's Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the St. Louis Museum of Art, and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. So that he can keep his quest free of creative and financial constraints, he continues to work as a commercial photographer for such companies as Fuji Film, the makers of Maxwell House coffee, Volvo, and the territory of Puerto Rico. But he spends most of the year pioneering new descriptive potentials, enlarging the color vocabulary, charting new territories.
``He is pushing the aesthetic potential of the color photograph as far as it will go,'' says Professor Jussim, ``so that you are not worried about `Gee, what is that?' but rather, `Oh my goodness, what a magnificent play of color, and light, and mood.' That is the essence of his work.''
With attention focused on him because of his new book exhibition, Meyerowitz is making the media rounds to discuss his new work.
``I find surprising power in ordinary things through the way they hold themselves in the light and resonate within larger volumes of colored space,'' he says, dangling his Leica camera with tanned hands. He has a beneficent face with half-moon eyes that sparkle like his gentle but always articulate speech. ``With color, subtler things can be the subject of a photograph, the very weight of the atmosphere itself, the temperature of a day, the quality of someone's skin -- these don't reveal themselves in black and white but become palpable in color.''
A conversation with Meyerowitz is peppered with such words as ``exploration,'' ``challenge,'' ``awareness,'' ``vision.''
``A photographer's life is about being curious and absorbing things. Even though it's mechanical -- when you press the button and you get a picture processed by some lab or Kodak -- you can still have your individual voice. But that has to accumulate through the risk-taking of living your life by watching.'' His new collection of photographs shows the fruit of his own curiosity -- a veritable conjugation of blues, pinks, greens, and reds. As its title suggests, the subjects include deceptively simple summer scenes, such as a rain-dotted screen door, a hedge of blooming roses, light-filled rooms, a bowl of ripe fruit, friends gathering at dusk. The photographs are made arresting by Meyerowitz's ability to distill basic elements in his compositions.
As if the collection were a diary of a single summer's day, the colors shift as the day passes, beginning with dusk, ending with fires at sunset, headlights against a fence, a horizon of cobalt blue heralding the fall of night. ``A photograph makes a stronger statement in a chorus of others,'' he says.
To capture the ethereal quality of Cape Cod, where the pictures were taken, Meyerowitz credits the capabilities of the larger camera.
``A view camera is a slower tool. It just means you move slower, and you can't deal with speed the same way as you can with a small camera. It reveals different subjects, too, because of its properties of time.'' He also credits the larger film with descriptive properties not inherent in black and white.
``The view camera is positively high fidelity. It describes everything with such incredible sharpness and luminosity that you could step into the picture. By contrast, the 35-mm negatives need to be enlarged, and the final product erodes the description of things to some extent.'' Beyond the joy of capturing sumptuous photos, Meyerowitz says photography is a route of self-discovery.
``If you're not watchful, if you're not out there accepting and absorbing, how can you consider a new possibility? There's a philosophical potential to photography that's seldom thought about or engaged. People think it's all picture and it's all about graphic form, and there's more to it than that. But there's a whole new way of living your life. It's a very intense experience, if you care to see it that way.''
Meyerowitz has a message for all those American families about to pile into the station wagon en route to Myrtle Beach, Mammoth Cave, or the Grand Tetons: ``When I go away with my children,'' he says, ``I give them each a block of 20 rolls of film and say, here, spend this. It's like spending money on their experience. They see something they like, they take it. I tell them not to hesitate.'' Meyerowitz says he didn't hesitate leaping into photography in 1962, when his boss sent him out on a shoot with Robert Frank, one of the top black-and-white photographers at the time.
Five years later, his work was exhibited at New York's Museum of Modern Art in what critics called a rapid rise to recognition. Friends and associates credit his character and undeniable zeal.
``The man is in love with life and humanity,'' says Glenn Hoffman, art supervisor at Ogilvy & Mather, who worked with Meyerowitz. ``He's feeling everything that goes on around him at all times. If there's vitality in a situation, Joel will always be in touch with it.''