The Fussy Eye: The Philosopher Behind the Photos

Certain big names emerged among postwar American street photographers. Saul Leiter wasn’t one of them. He moved to New York in the mid-’40s, began shooting urban scenes in black-and-white, and transitioned in the ’50s to color—then considered the lowly province of Look and LIFE and fashion mags. No serious photographer would be caught dead shooting the stuff.

Yet Leiter persisted, and Steidl’s 2008 publication of his Early Color suddenly put him in the pantheon with William Eggleston, Robert Frank, and Gary Winogrand. English filmmaker Tomas Leach became a fan (as did I), and he’s created an intimate documentary portrait of the now-90-year-old artist, In No Great Hurry. The doc includes a generous selection of Leiter’s work, in which awnings, umbrellas, and women’s dresses become smears of color, often shot through damp windows and cropped in-frame by the city’s architecture and street furniture. But, in 13 chapters, what Leiter mainly does is discourse on his patient method. “The real world has more to do with what is hidden,” he says.

He doesn’t hunt for crisp, decisive moments or definitive character portraits. Indeed, as Leach follows him through the Greenwich Village blocks where he’s lived for six decades, Leiter has a wandering aesthetic. He keeps the viewfinder far from his face, so he can chat with his subjects. There’s no program or agenda to his art. Speaking of his cluttered apartment, he says, “There’s a certain kind of charm and comfort to disorder. To know everything is not good.” The same applies to his art. The son of a rabbi, Leiter invests his images with a kind of numinous mystery. What’s he after? What’s he trying to capture? The avuncular artist is vague to the point of Zen. “My photographs are meant to tickle your left ear,” he says, and leaves it at that. Northwest Film Forum, 1515 12th Ave., 267-5380, $6–$10. 7 & 9 p.m. Mon., Nov. 25–Wed., Nov. 27.

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