People & Place

Rob Townsend's OCA Learning Log


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Film: In No Great Hurry: 13 Lessons in Life with Saul Leiter

I first heard of Saul Leiter when I was studying the Colour section of Art of Photography about a year ago, and I heard about this film “In No Great Hurry: 13 Lessons in Life with Saul Leiter” [1] at about the same time. Sadly, just as I was discovering his work, the great man passed away. He’d reached the grand old age of 89 so he had a fair old crack at life, you must admit. I made a mental note to track the film down, and only came back to this mental note quite recently, I confess!

In No Great Hurry

In No Great Hurry

This 2012 documentary, produced and directed by filmmaker Tomas Leach, is a respectful and fitting tribute to the man. Leiter could have been one of the most famous photographers of his era, and is rightly feted as a pioneer of colour photography. His best work is street photography with a lyrical twist, painterly almost to the point of being abstract in some cases.

I have a Saul Leiter book on order, and when it arrives I hope I’ll find time to write more about the photography itself. In the meantime, I guess this post is more about the film, and by extension about Leiter the person as well as the photographer. It’s not so odd to watch a documentary about a photographer and get some interesting insights from the segments between the photographs shown – you can (within the constraints of the editing process…) get a good feel for the person, how they think, how they act, how they see the world.

They’re not really ‘lessons in life’ at all, it’s a thin construct around which to hang an interview that took place over a period of time when the ageing but still sparky Leiter was sorting through a very messy apartment that housed his photographic archive. The photos he found only occasionally enter the narrative – for the most part it’s simply a gently-paced character portrait. He was a very friendly, peaceful, softly-spoken and most of all modest man. Modest to a fault – he could have, if he wished, been much more well-known than he was. He was very content to be ‘uncelebrated’ for most of his life. Not that he was truly ‘undiscovered’ in Vivian Maier style – he did commercial work in the 1950s, including Harpers and Esquire. But he chose not to pursue the fame and fortune.

He comes across as dismissive of the attention he received at the very end of his life, but you get little glimpses that he secretly enjoyed it – his face when Leach plays back some rough footage says as much.

So what did I learn, from a photographic point of view? That being a painter as well as a photographer gives you a different view on the world; that more subjects suit the vertical format than I thought (he shot almost exclusively in portrait ratio, something I subsequently found he has in common with Ralph Gibson); and that you can find abstract beauty in the most unexpected places.

My favourite quote of the whole film:

“My photographs are meant to tickle your left ear. Very lightly.”

(I think I actually know what he meant, too)

  1. http://watch.innogreathurry.com (accessed 06/10/2014)


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Documentary: Everybody Street

I subscribe to an excellent podcast called The Candid Frame [1] that features hour-long interviews with photographers, and recently listened to an episode dedicated to photographer and filmmaker Cheryl Dunn, who has directed a fantastic documentary on New York street photography called ‘Everybody Street’ [2]. It inspired me to seek out the film itself, which I’ve just finished watching.

Everybody Street

Everybody Street

It’s made up of interviews with contemporary photographers, plus some old hands from years gone by (including a sprightly 98-year-old, Rebecca Lepkoff, active since the 1940s), mixed in with art historians waxing lyrical about legendary practitioners no longer with us.

It serves to illustrate the extremely broad church that is “street photography”, even in a city like New York where the cliché of the gritty black-and-white street aesthetic was made famous. Yes, there’s a lot of the ‘classic’ (/cliché) street style but looking closer you see much variation and originality:

  • From very broad ‘anything goes’ subject matter – whatever was happening on the street (Joel Meyerowitz, Elliott Erwitt, Jeff Mermelstein)…
  • … to very specific projects (Bruce Davidson and subways; Boogie and gangs; Jill Freedman and cops/firemen; Martha Cooper and graffiti artists)
  • From very serious subject matter (social injustice – Clayton Patterson, Helen Levitt, Jamel Shabazz)…
  • … to very humorous (Erwitt I was already a fan of, but the revelation here was Mermelstein – some really lovely work)
  • From deliberately requested and posed portraits (Patterson, Shabazz, Mary Ellen Mark)…
  • … to the frankly obnoxious in-your-face style of Bruce Gilden

I warmed to some photographers much more than others – just seeing his photos beforehand had made me think that Gilden’s style wasn’t for me, but to see him in practice confirmed my worst suspicions – he really does stick the camera and flash right up in people’s faces without warning. I’m not surprised he gets into altercations now and again – he deserves it! Ricky Powell came across as a bit of a loud character, a bit stereotypical Noo Yawk for my liking, and his portfolio was a bit celebrity-heavy for what is supposed to be a street photography film.

But these are minor gripes for sure. In all, I found it to be an invigorating, educational and insightful film, and one that I’ll watch again.

I thought it might have been too focused on New York the city and therefore not really connect with me, but thankfully I was  wrong – it’s very much about the photographers and their work, with NYC as their canvas. What they all do with it is actually quite different.

Highly recommended for anyone with an interest in street photography – or even just photography in general. It’s an insight into the minds of an eclectic bunch of photographers. And one of the things about great photographers is that you’re not just admiring the end results of their work – you’re admiring the way they see the world. This film really brought that home to me.

  1. The Candid Frame (podcast) http://ibarionex.net/thecandidframe/ [accessed 16/06/2014]
  2. Everybody Street (film): Dir. Cheryl Dunn http://everybodystreet.com [accessed 16/06/2014]