Tomas Leach Is In No Great Hurry to Explain Pioneering Photographer Saul Leiter
He's looking through you
Your Instagram posts will never be as brilliant as the 1950s-era color photography of pioneer Saul Leiter. Often obstructed by such natural interventions as window reflections or winter fog, his work displays his vision of New York City street life. Unknowing passersby are transformed into abstract blurs of bright color, strange juxtapositions resemble collages that are utterly gorgeous. No filters are used; the hyper-realistic grade of chrome coloring within the film stock's emulsion gives his photos their pop luster.
Leiter and his keen eye are the subjects of Tomas Leach's documentary In No Great Hurry, presented by the Orange County Museum of Art and Newport Beach Film Festival's joint series Cinema Orange. The film begins with a shot of Leiter rifling through a newspaper and wondering aloud in a half-serious, half-sarcastic tone why in the hell anyone would want to make a movie about him. "I just take pictures of somebody's window," Leiter protests. "That's not such a great achievement. What makes anyone think I'm any good?"
If this is your introduction to Leiter, you'd wonder, too, until a sequence of his classic '50s photographs fills the screen and you realize the self-deprecating artist is a genius. His cantankerous nature can be humorous at times, but it unfortunately prevents viewers from gaining a satisfying amount of insight. Leiter makes it clear he's a person who doesn't think too hard about his photography; he simply responds to the moment. Leach's camera follows his introverted subject closely as he cleans up his apartment and discusses various views and aspects of his life in fragments. A series of chapters called "life lessons" organize Leiter's personal thoughts, yet ultimately do little to explain his work.
We do learn various things about his personal life, but Leiter leaves these conversations hanging: his family's Holocaust past; his father's disappointment in Leiter's career as a fashion photographer; and of Soames Bantry, a model and painter who became Leiter's longtime partner until she passed away in 2002. Leiter rummages through her room and remembers her fondly as an avid proponent of his work, and then in a cryptic turn states, "I killed her. How did I do it? I don't know. But it's my fault. From time to time, I have to face the fact that everything is my fault."
Though throughout the film, Leach hasn't been shy about asking questions from behind the camera, he leaves this very personal admission alone.
It's frustrating to encounter a subject who is so against himself, but the viewer benefits greatly from third-party interviews. Max Kozloff, an art historian and critic, reads an essay at the beginning of the film expressing Leiter's importance, and his longtime assistant, Margit Erb, discusses Leiter's contemporary photographs, which still retain that very signature Saul Leiter look to them in a digital format. These moments of praise are welcome switches from Leiter's downer disposition, but they are few and far between.
Leach's decision to focus primarily on Leiter and his thoughts is an admirable approach, but it is challenging to endure. Even shots of Leiter's early self-portraits obscure his young face behind a camera, as he always preferred the comfort of distance. Yet he's not antisocial; Leach films Leiter during his daily walks and as he has lighthearted conversations with neighbors. Returning to that dreary apartment seems an act of purposeful, if mysterious, self-exile.
Leach must have been aware of the difficulty of capturing Leiter on camera before taking on such a project, but he's smart enough to keep engaging his subject. As Leach follows Leiter on his strolls through his New York neighborhood, it's refreshing to see the young man inside the photographer come alive as he meticulously frames pictures of everyday street scenes. Despite his pessimism, Leiter knew what was important and valued social relationships over fame and success.
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