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Joel Meyerowitz spent a formative six months in Málaga in the mid 1960s, and now the pioneering street photographer returns with a major exhibition that re-examines the influence this early work had on his storied career.

It was here, in Andalusia, on an extended stay during his 20,000-mile road trip around Europe, that the Bronx-born photographer discovered his artistic identity, he told The Art Newspaper, ahead of the show’s opening last week at the Museo Picasso Málaga.

“I began to move away from conventional framing,” he says, explaining that his assiduous observation of a different way of life resulted in a shift of focus away from putting the action at the centre of the picture. “The temperament and tempo of European society was so different from America. I began to sense that I could see things in layers and work all over the frame… even the edges, cutting off that fluid connection to the invisible world outside the frame. All of this started to have an impact on me. And I found myself risking making pictures that were multifaceted.”

Meyerowitz had devoted himself to photography three years earlier, following a revelatory encounter with Robert Frank. He schooled himself on the streets of New York, photographing alongside Tony Ray-Jones (the young Englishman who would become Martin Parr’s primary influence) and, later, Garry Winogrand, who he would meet up with most days, “parading up and down Fifth Avenue shooting”.

“I began to see that I had my own particular way, my own timing, my own sense of framing. But going to Europe meant that I was truly on my own.”

A well-paid assignment from an advertising agency funded the trip, made with his then wife, Vivian Bower, a painter. The 28-year-old photographer picked up a Volvo in London in 1966 before setting off to ten countries across Europe over the course of a year, travelling from Ireland to Turkey, taking in communist Bulgaria and fascist Spain. “My generation was so indebted to Robert Frank, a European who came to America to discover himself. So I went to Europe to discover myself.”

When he came back and joined up with Winogrand again alongside another newcomer, Tod Papageorge, he was “too much my own man,” Meyerowitz says. “What I had learned in Europe gave me my own individuality.”

“Now the odd thing is, I didn’t process any film for a whole year. So when I came back to New York, I had 700 rolls of colour and black-and-white, almost equally divided. And so I was working blind for that year. But my instincts and impulses were driving me and, I think, that the proof is in the prints that emerged from that year,” says the photographer, now aged 86 and living in London.

Suits you: a tattooed man photographed by Meyerowitz in London in 1966

Meyerowitz showed his work to John Szarkowski, the director of the department of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, who then gave him a small solo show in 1968, My European Trip: Photographs from the Car by Joel Meyerowitz, selecting only the monochrome images. Four years later, Meyerowitz devoted himself entirely to colour (which was then mostly associated with commercial media) and is now considered a trailblazer. Another four years later, in 1976, Szarkowski staged William Eggleston’s Guide, a cornerstone in the legitimisation of colour as an accepted art form.

The exhibition at the Museo Picasso Málaga, which includes more than 200 pictures, will mix both colour and black-and-white, sometimes presenting the same scene in both aspects. It is the first initiated by the museum’s new artistic director, Miguel López-Remiro Forcada, who met Meyerowitz several years ago and came to know about his Málaga work, determining he would one day find a way to bring the photographer back to the city.

“Now, 60 years on, he is revisiting those pictures in a meta-journey, a journey into a journey,” writes Forcada in an essay in the accompanying catalogue. “Perhaps it is a circular narrative: the European roots of his own ancestors who emigrated to the United States, his own childhood growing up in the Bronx surrounded by Europeans, the initiatory journey through 1966 Europe, and now his look at himself living in Europe. All these layers of identity overlap to transport us to a magical place.”

• Joel Meyerowitz: Europe 1966-1967, Museo Picasso Málaga, until 15 December

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