Joel’s new feature, Along the Blue River in Italian publication Reportagé, published as a collateral product by Corriere della Sera, details his trip to China in the late 1970s and shares the amazing images that he took on his journey. In the summer of 1979, a friend invited Joel Meyerowitz on the first ever excursion for Westerners along the Yangtze River of post-Maoist China.
Organised by the travel company Lindblad, Joel set off on a boat with a group of other Westerners to visit an area of the world that had been virtually un-photographed.
Joel was amazed at at the tirelessness and the perseverance of the “multitudes” of labour. Of the women breaking rocks on “the banks of the river from 7am” and still ongoing twelve hours later, and the men who dragged concrete slabs “as if they were oxen”.
He photographed the masses from the other side of the bank, describing the experience as an “unforgettable memory”, albeit “disturbing”.
In Along the Blue River, Joel depicts the cultural landscape, with all of the people dressed in the “faded Maoist blue, grey or green uniforms” and cities “surrounded by clouds of corrosive smoke” with “towers of twisted scaffolding in which raw bamboo pipes intertwines with rusted steel, often in the same building”.
Crossing gorges, mountains, flood plains and seeing small villages from his boat, “cities that could have been thousands of years old next to small riverside villages surrounded by industrial structures”. Visually, the setting was a complete juxtaposition to the liberal and vibrant atmosphere of late-20th-century New York and helps convey why this set of images have such an organic beauty.
Memories of the incredible quietness of the Chinese environment is something Joel focuses on. Even in the big cities, there were “no horns, no stereos or full-size TVs, only the rustling of slippers on sidewalks and dusty roads.”
He sited it as incredible that this number of people could operate in such silence, stating that it was almost disturbing to stop and take a picture “in the midsts of so many observers that didn’t make a sound”, rather, the people would simply stare at the unfamiliarity of his behaviour and clothing in silence.
Joel shares anecdotes that help explain the peculiarity of Western culture. As he took an image on a Polaroid machine, when the photograph began to emerge from the slot and began to develop, people would run away “as if it were the work of the devil in person”.
Joel notes that his work photographing the streets of New York City, namely Fifth Avenue, prepared him for this journey.
Learning to make himself “invisible” was “very useful” in a culture where he “stood our for height and provenance” he was mostly quick enough to blend into the crowd, which greatly benefited him when moving back to the Manhattan streetwalks.
“The aspect of randomness – that I find is the greatest resource of photography – it made me change direction several times, suggesting new questions in my mind.” – Joel Meyerowitz
“The silence in the streets, even in the larger cities, cannot be depicted in a photograph. But as a New Yorker I can say that I was shocked by the lack of what we Westerners consider the normal buzz of city life, like conversations, jokes and the usual exchange of jokes every day which are the background to our way of being freer and genuine.” – Joel Meyerowitz
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“This is Wanxian, an island on the Blue River. Our boat docked there for a break and we were escorted to a banquet in the town hall. We were probably the first Westerners ever seen in those parts. When it was time to leave, the whole city gathered on the shore to see us set sail. Suddenly the commander sounded the sirens because a passenger was missing from the appeal. It was me! I had started taking photographs without realizing that everyone else had already come back on board, so I rushed down the long staircase and onto the platform. As soon as I arrived, the crowd opened in a narrow passage and when I made my way I felt a lot of pats on the back and on my back, silent, they invited me to hurry. I jumped aboard and turned around, exclaiming in Chinese: “Thank you and goodbye!”, And with one voice replied in chorus “Goodbye””
– Joel Meyerowitz
To buy the Along the Blue River publication including all of these fantastic images click here