Saul Leiter, a color photographer's color photographer, died a week ago today.
I suspect he'll be one of those photographers we learn more about as time passes, rather than less; he strikes me as a figure who will be known a century from now, once all the claims and pretenses and strivings of more effortful reputations have had a chance to fall away.
He photographed like everyone imagines a painter would: with an intense focus not on what was in front of the camera but on what the camera made of it.
He wasn't particularly famous in the 1950s when he did his most innovative work—or rather he was, briefly, but the moment soon faded. He reportedly didn't particularly seek fame and was sanguine about its ups and downs. But he was very lucky to enjoy a golden sunset to his life, thanks to the protean German publisher Gerhard Steidl, who published Early Color in 2008, a book that was in intense demand at the time and that revitalized attention and regard for Leiter. (We played a small part in helping publicize the book: TOP readers bought many hundreds of copies.)
Our friend Jim Hughes, who writes occasionally for TOP now, thinks that maybe the November/December 1981 issue of his magazine Camera Arts might be Saul's only magazine cover—at least featuring his artistic work. Saul was one of Jim's sources for Shadow and Substance, his biography of W. Eugene Smith. And a little-known fact, in Jim's words: "Gene Smith set Saul on his quest for personally meaningful visual images by giving him his first real camera, a 35mm Contax, in the late 1940s." Of Saul himself, Jim says, "Saul was wise, amusing and self-deprecating, to say the least. His perspective on life seemed to me to be very interior, with everything seen at oblique angles."
There are many nice things on the Internet about him from this past week: primarily the New York Times obituary. There is a film about Saul Leiter out there, one of many that I evidently don't get to see*.
The piece you really should not miss is Teju Cole's beautifully written little piece for the New Yorker's Page-Turner. Called "Postscript: Saul Leiter (1923-2013)," it is an epitaph for a fortunate artistic life.
(Thanks to Stephan Miller, John Bax, and Jim Hughes.
If anyone knows who took the photo of Leiter at the top, please let me know.)
*Being at the letter-to-the-editor-writing stage of my continuing emergence as a curmudgeon, I actually wrote an email to the manager of the local multiplex. With 16 screens and two three-story-high "UIltrascreens," I pleaded, couldn't at least one screen be devoted to small films for serious thinking adults? Much to my surprise, I received a long response. He said they were sympathic, and they were trying to do that, but the films for the local market are chosen by the "main office" or whatever he called it, and the faceless corporate managers there make all the decisions. Those entities do not appear to have a very high opinion of sophistication of the citizens of Waukesha, unfortunately.
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Featured Comments from:
Larry Watson: "I had a nice email exchange with Tomas Leach, the film-maker of In No Great Hurry, the documentary on Saul Leiter. I, too, had not seen it and I am a big Saul Leiter fan. One can subscribe to their mailing list for updates about seeing the film. Mr. Leach said they are hoping for a week in NYC in January. He also said that hopefully, Netflix and iTunes may carry the film, but that 'for a small movie like this, they are very slow....' I was also able to watch an interview on YouTube with Saul conducted in Amsterdam, I believe it was in 2011.
"As far as magazine covers, I thought I saw covers he did for Bazaar and Vogue when he was doing fashion photography. I only have a little book by Thames & Hudson. Look forward to seeing Early Color when it is reprinted."
Ailsa: "Thank you for the New Yorker link—it's always good to read such a warm, appreciative piece of writing. As for the cinema issue, I am lucky enough to live just a five-minute walk from one of the south's best cinemas—the Duke of York's, in Brighton (famous for the pair of can-can legs on its roof). Every now and then, my husband and I discuss moving out of Brighton, but when I think of living more than a mile or so from some of the best films you could hope to see, I become slightly panic-stricken. And if anything demonstrates that the public has an appetite for 'arthouse' films, it's this: the Duke of York's recently opened its second cinema in Brighton—a city with a population of only 270,000."
Mike replies: Still, that's about four times the population of Waukesha. And, I really must visit Brighton some day!