Tuesday, 9 April 2013

In No Great Hurry

Sub-titled 13 Lessons in Life with Saul Leiter, this documentary shown on BBC 4 last week gave a fascinating insight into the life and working methods of one of my favourite photographers. Leiter has to be one of the most self-effacing photographers on the planet. In a world of hype and self-promotion, he came across as delightfully free from ego. His opening words give some idea of the modesty of the man: "I am not carried away by the greatness of Mr. Leiter. He is a minor figure and does not deserve to have a story about him!" Possibly slightly tongue-in-cheek, he nonetheless claims to be unambitious and in his 90th year, happy to continue taking photographs in the manner he has always done, stalking the streets of New York and turning his camera on whatever pleases him.

Leiter is known as one of the pioneers of colour photography, turning to colour in the early 1950s when most serious photography was in black and white. Colour was definitely looked down upon, and with its associations with commercial and fashion photography, there was a certain snobbishness prevalent at the time which meant that to be taken seriously in art circles, photography most definitely had to be in black and white. Yet Leiter characteristically denies his importance as a pioneer, and makes the point that "if you know enough about photography, you realise that nothing is really that new". This is something that the contemporary photography world, with its insistence on novelty above all else, would do well to remember. Leiter did in fact make a living from doing fashion photography for Harper's Bazaar as well as his own personal work and did not, like many photographers, consider this to be beneath him, but rather looked upon it as an extension of his vision. He was part of the New York photography scene in the 1950s and 60s, but despite taking part in an exhibition at MOMA, preferred to keep a low profile and has only become more generally well-known in recent years, mainly due to the success of what he endearingly calls his 'little book' - Early Color.

Whilst peevishly taunting the film-maker that he may not after all, allow the documentary to be shown, throughout the film Leiter, accompanied by his trusty assistant Margit, sorts through his cluttered New York apartment piled high with boxes and boxes of slides and prints, paintings, ephemera and memories - the result of a long life spent doing exactly what he pleased - namely photographing and painting. He started life as a painter and was associated with the Abstract Expressionist school, and then turned to photography. His unusual eye for colour was certainly honed by his painting skills and there is definitely a painterly, almost abstract quality to his work.  It was interesting to hear his thoughts on the act of photographing - where so much photography these days is planned or staged, he prefers to go out with his camera and photograph what he comes across, without any preconceived notions of what it is he wants to do, tending to react to what he finds. Simply put "You have a camera, you take a picture. You're not quite sure what you get....."

What you get is simply beautiful - this is not street photography in the strict sense of the word, though most of the work was done on the street.  Leiter does not adopt the confrontational style of the typical New York street photographer. He presents instead a fragmented and ambiguous world, an intimate 'urban pastoral' in the midst of the busiest city on earth. The photographs are luminous, expertly composed, often shot through glass with multi-faceted reflections, little snatches of life on the street with often a bright patch of some colour going on in a corner. Art critic Roberta Smith wrote in 2005: "Mr Leiter was a photographer less of people than of perception itself. His painter's instincts served him well in his emphasis on surface, spatial ambiguity and a lush, carefully calibrated palette. But the abstract allure of his work doesn't rely on soft focus, a persistent often irritating photographic ploy, or the stark isolation of details, in the manner of Aaron Siskind or early Harry Callahan. Instead, Mr Leiter captured the passing illusions of everyday life with a precision that might almost seem scientific, if it weren't so poetically resonant and visually layered."

Leiter's thoughts on beauty in art are worth repeating here, mainly as beauty as a concept seems to have fallen out of favour and what is miserable, wretched and squalid is now the norm.
"I believe, if I may be so old-fashioned, that there is such a thing as a search for beauty, a delight in the nice things in the world, and I don't think that one should have to apologise for it."
Amen to that!

All photographs Saul Leiter.  Further information about the film including a trailer can be found here.  If you get the chance to see it, you won't be disappointed - it's available to view on BBC iPlayer.  

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