Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Saul Leiter: The Quiet Iconoclast
Saul Leiter has been redefining the parameters of street photography since the 1940s. Working in both black and white and color, he exhibited from the beginning of his career a distinct visual grammar that features off-center perspectives, compressed spatial dynamics, and a predilection for breaking up the frame in unpredictable and exciting ways. His color work, which went unrecognized for decades, is perhaps even more radical in its asymmetrical visual rhythm and defiantly unsaturated tonalities inspired by Johannes Vermeer. Leiter’s work is further distinguished by its indifference to decisive moments of human intercourse. In fact, Leiter might be regarded as the master of the “indecisive” moment – those in-between moments when nothing of much importance seems to be happening but which resonate with a profound if understated sense of interior drama. Leiter is one of photography’s underrated masters, and a living testament to the maxim that the greatest artists are often the most humble and self-deprecating. His black-and-white work was featured in the book “The New York School” and his color images in “Early Color.” The native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, still makes his home in New York City, where he has lived since 1946.

Saul Leiter

Most descriptions of your color work reference its affinity to painting. Do you ever tire of hearing that, even if it’s true?

No, I’m not tired of it. I think it’s meant as a compliment.

You’re also affiliated with the New York School of photography, but I’m guessing you never felt part of any school or movement. True?

Yes, I never did.

Did you associate with any of the New York School photographers?

I admired Louis Faurer’s work very much. I thought he was unusual. There was a kind of poetry and quirkiness about his work that appealed to me. I admired Robert Frank’s work very much. I think he is a great photographer. What else can you say about him? His work is poetic and beautiful. Robert Frank asked me one day to help Louis Faurer on a fashion shoot. This must have been in the early 1950s. I went to his studio and it was complete madness, so I left. Louis was very angry with me for leaving and didn’t talk to me for years. I knew Diane Arbus. She lived across the street from me. I want to mention the fact that I learned from her biography that I helped her with her laundry one day. Did I really help her with laundry? I’m not so sure.

What kind of response did any of them have to your color work?
Very few people were aware of my color work. My friend Bob Weaver, an unusual artist and illustrator, and Barbara and Dottie and Bobbie would from time to time come to my apartment and see my slide shows.

I understand the painter Richard Pousette-Dark was an early influence, as was Henri Cartier-Bresson. How did their work impact yours?

Most of my friends were painters. I really knew very few photographers, aside from Ray and Diane Whitlin, who I am afraid are not known today. Richard Pousette-Dart was a friend of mine. I liked his work but it was in a total different area. There was an element of Pictorialism about it. He liked enlarging and bleaching and manipulating. But I really don’t think I was influenced by anyone. I think I will leave it up to someone else to determine who influenced me. I admired a tremendous number of photographers, but for some reason I arrived at a point of view of my own.

Harlem, 1960

Did your family and upbringing affect your decision to become and an artist?

No, they did not. My mother thought I could be a rabbi and still paint on the third floor. “Who would know?” she would say. My father thought photography was done by lowlifes. My family was very unhappy about my becoming a photographer—profoundly and deeply unhappy. That’s not what they wanted for me, but I don’t want to go into it.

Did you continue to paint after you took up photography?

Yes. I did. I’ve painted ever since. I have the largest collection of Saul Leiters in the world. There are a few thousand of them. Quite a few of them need more work. I need another 10 years to complete them all. [Laughs]

What was the biggest challenge in developing a personal style?

I wasn’t challenged. The style, if there is any, was just the result of working in photography. I wasn’t immersed in challenges.

You shot fashion for many years for such magazines as Esquire and Harper’s Bazaar. Did you enjoy working in this genre?
Sometimes I enjoyed it very much and at other times not so much. I consider fashion photography to have an honorable position in the history of photography and it doesn’t need apologies. It was a way for me to earn a living. I needed to pay my light bill and my rent and I needed money for food.

Were you able to infiltrate your personal vision into your fashion work?

The answer is yes. I think it was obvious to me that there was a connection between my fashion work and my personal work.

Conversely, did your fashion imagery have any effect upon your personal work?

Yes, surprisingly. My work in fashion sometimes suggested ideas for my personal work. Sometimes I pursued those ideas and sometimes not.

Why did you decide to do street photography in color, when the overwhelming majority of photographers preferred black and white?

I never felt the need to do what everyone else did. And I wasn’t troubled by the fact that other people were doing other

Walk with Soames, 1958

Color is obviously a big part of your aesthetic, yet I think it sometimes obscures other concerns. For example, the people in your photographs are often hemmed in, fragmented or isolated from one another. Do you see the urban environment as a kind of alienating or isolating entity?

I never thought of the urban environment as isolating. I leave these speculations to others. It’s quite possible that my work represents a search for beauty in the most prosaic and ordinary places. One doesn’t have to be in some faraway dreamland in order to find beauty. I realize that the search for beauty is not highly popular these days. Agony, misery and wretchedness, now these are worth perusing.

Your pictures are both fluid and discordant. Were you conscious of that when you clicked the shutter, or was it more of an instinctive or intuitive response to the city’s visual stimuli?
I was not really aware that my pictures are discordant.

Is it fair to say that you were more interested in evoking the character of New York City’s people rather than its architecture?

I didn’t photograph people as an example of New York urban something or other. I don’t have a philosophy. I have a camera. I look into the camera and take pictures. My photographs are the tiniest part of what I see that could be photographed. They are fragments of endless possibilities.

How would you characterize the emotional tone of your color work?

I must confess that I have never devoted five seconds to thinking about the tone of my color work. Although I understand that people feel differently.

Many of your images have a compressed spatial perspective. Was the telephoto your preferred lens?
I liked different lenses for different times. I am fond of the telephoto lens, as I am of the normal 50 mm lens. I had at one point a 150 mm lens and I was very fond it. I liked what it did. I experimented a lot. Sometimes I worked with a lens that I had when I might have preferred another lens. I think Picasso once said that he wanted to use green in a painting but since he didn't have it he used red. Perfection is not something I admire. [Laughs]. A touch of confusion is a desirable ingredient.

Haircut, 1956

The flattening of the image gives much of your work a cinematic feel. Again, was this an effect you consciously sought?
I don’t plan things. As a rule I prefer to see what happens. If I were to speak of influences, I did at one point have a collection of books put out by an Italian publishing house of stills from a number of famous early movies. I think these books may have had a certain amount of influence on my photographs. That happens to be true. I was more attracted to those sorts of things in terms of my work than other photographers’ works.

I’m intrigued by the fact that you would often use expired color film for its unpredictable effects. With digital imagery, some of the spontaneity and surprise seems to have gone out of photography. Your feelings?

I don’t need to belittle the work of present day photography. I see quite often things that I like and admire. I do digital photography myself. Certain people of my generation decided that the past was better than the present. I am not sure that that is true. I don’t want to be one of those people that says the world has come to an end.

The vast majority of your color images are framed vertically. Can you say why you favored this perspective? Is there something about leading the viewer’s eye in a vertical rather than horizontal manner?

Just call me Mr. Vertical.

The vertical images have a certain feeling of lightness, if you will, as opposed to horizontal pictures, which seem weightier from a visual perspective. Combined with flattened perspectives, they seem to evoke (at least spiritually) Japanese scroll paintings. Were these another influence?

I don’t know if they were an influence, but I did own a collection of Japanese prints at one point. I bought them from a dealer in London. I also had a collection of books on Japanese art. I love the whole world of Japanese art. I love Ogata Korin’s work and I love Tawaraya Sotatsu’s work.

Is there a philosophy or outlook that you have tried to communicate in your work?

I didn’t try to communicate any kind of philosophy since I am not a philosopher. I am a photographer. That’s it.

I understand that for much of your life, you did not make your color work public. Why was that?
At certain points I tried to interest people in my work, and they were not interested. And sometimes I offered to give someone a print and that someone forgot to take it. I was invited to show my work at certain point, but I never opened the letter, which, in retrospect, seemed to not be a very good career move.

What inspired you to finally make it available?
Martin Harrison [art historian and the writer/editor of “Early Color”] admired my work. He called me up one day and came over. He got Ilford to pay for some of my printing. Over a period of time he tried to interest people in the work. He became a good friend and I owe him a great deal. Then Jane Livingston put me into the “New York School” book, and then I ran into Howard Greenberg and his gallery. Then, after many attempts, Martin persuaded Steidl to publish the book on early color, which was, I believe, well received. And Martin will work very soon on a book on my early black and whites.

Foot on El, 1954

Do you feel that color was a more congenial medium for you than black and white?

At the moment, people know more about my work in color than my work in black and white. I can understand that some people may prefer the color. When the black-and-white book appears we’ll see. There’s a different sensibility at work in my color than in my black and white. I hesitate to suggest that my black-and-white work is inferior. We will have to wait and see. I don’t even know my own work.

Are you still taking photographs?

Yes. Sometimes color, but mostly black and white. I use small digital cameras because I am very old and weak. [Laughs]

Do you feel that you still have new things to communicate?

No. I am washed up and finished, but I will continue anyway. [Laughs] I still do everything that I’ve always done in one way or another.

Does it become easier or harder to make compelling imagery as time goes by and you compile a larger body of work?

It’s very easy. I haven’t forgotten how to take pictures.

Have you gotten used to your newfound fame?
I am not immersed in self-admiration. When I am listening to Vivaldi or Japanese music or making spaghetti at three in the morning and realize that I don’t have the proper sauce for it, fame is of no use. The other way to put it is that I don’t have a talent for narcissism. Or, to put it yet another way, the mirror is not my best friend. [Laughs]

(I profiled Leiter’s work in the April 2009 issue of COLOR magazine. His work is represented by the Howard Greenberg Gallery, which I would like to thank for providing images.)

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Matt Black: A Commitment to Truth
Freelance photographer Matt Black is a native of rural California, and grew up in the San Joaquin Valley, a rich
agricultural region that, ironically, is also home to a number of impoverished ethnic communities, among them immigrants from Mexico, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, as well as a dwindling population of black sharecroppers that migrated to California during the Dust Bowl era. Since 1998 he has been documenting such communities through the interrelated thematic prisms of migration, agriculture and rural poverty. Inspired by the socially committed photographers of the 1930s, Black specializes in the extended photo essay, spending months, sometimes years photographing a particular place or community. His powerful, dreamlike and unflinching images serve to raise awareness of overlooked and marginalized populations for whom the American Dream is on permanent deferral.

Matt Black

Where did you grow up?
In the town of Visalia. I live nearby now, in a town called Lemon Cove.

Were you visually oriented as a child?
I may have been. But the arts weren’t really part of my family’s history, and photography is something I came to later, on my own.

What started you off on photography?
I discovered it in high school and learned enough to get a night job at a local newspaper. The darkroom became my second home.

Did the environment in which you were raised help shape your photographic concerns?
I don’t know. I think that we all come pretty much pre-programmed with a certain way of seeing the world, and engaging with it. On the issue of why I am doing this in the first place, or why here, it became a question of: Why go traipsing halfway around the world, when the thing I want to explore is right around the corner? It’s that simple, really, and to a certain extent I felt duty bound to begin this work here.

Saint's Day celebration. Oaxaca, Mexico

How do you choose your projects? Are they all self-assigned?
Yes. I have a place or a group of people that I want to explore and I get started.

Why do you focus so intently on immigrant populations, small towns and rural environments?
It’s a world that attracts me, both as a photographer and as a person. These people and places resonate with me, and I’m fascinated by all of it. Also, I think it’s important that they be paid attention to. But I’m not driven by some sort of activist or political agenda, other than an attempt to engage and address what I see.

Your work exhibits a strong concern for people who are generally ignored by the media except in ways that are stereotyped and condescending. This lends your photographs a political component, albeit one organically embedded in the visual narrative. How important is the need to instill a sociopolitical message in your photographs, and why is photography the best medium with which to do so?
I simply try to show the thing I am photographing as honestly as I can, being true to what’s there and to my own feelings as an observer. I think of it as emotional honesty. To try to turn everything into symbols or to have some sort of overarching message is too simple for me. If there is a guiding message, it’s right there in the images: that paying attention to these sorts of places is worthwhile. The process of photography continues to fascinate me, but it’s really more a means of addressing things, a way of engaging. I rarely think about it outside of that, in any kind of abstract terms. I just try to keep focused on sharpening it, on strengthening the acuity of the portrayal.

Where does your empathy for disadvantaged populations come from?
I’m not really sure. I like and deeply respect the people I photograph. There’s a real affinity that is a part of me and which I can’t fake, and I want the pictures to reflect that. I understand the rules of the world that they are coming from, and respect them. I also have lots of respect for hard work, which is kind of the prime factor in these sorts of places.

Texas migrant at home. Allensworth, California

You depict these subjects with dignity, but also honesty, showing their faults as well as their virtues. In other words, you present them as individuals, not nameless statistics. This, of course, is a fundamental tenet of good photojournalism, but one that’s perhaps not adhered to as often as it once was. Is this something you’ve thought about much, or is it more intuitive?
I just try to stay focused on producing something that rings true, that doesn’t pander. There are an untold number of photographs taken in rural places in which it’s obvious that someone has swooped in with the sole purpose of propagandizing some cause or another. Sometimes that’s all well and good, but I think ultimately that kind of approach leads to shallow, clichéd and unconvincing work. The cause might be a worthy one—and might even be one that I sympathize with—but that is not the role of my work. I take things as they are, and work to put the photographs in the service of stating that as strongly as possible.

The photograph of the cotton migrant at home is a beautiful example of utilizing environment as metaphor to comment on your subject’s circumstances. Do you consciously look for metaphor, or do you channel it intuitively?
I think all that comes later and I think that’s more for the viewer to say than for me. I go there and I react and I hope that I’m being sensitive and perceptive, and that what I’m producing rings true. The pictures are just the result of that process. Of course, I have certain goals in my mind while I’m working, but they tend to be broader, more cumulative.

One of the recurring themes in your work seems to be the attempt to retain a sense of community in spite of crumbling infrastructures and lack of opportunities—employment, cultural and social—even if that sense of community is limited to one’s immediate family. Any comment?
Frankly, I haven’t thought of it like that before. It’s just a different world with a different set of rules and different ways of doing things.

Is it fair to say that yours is a vision of America most people are unaware of, or don’t want to know about?
Mostly, I think they are unaware.

Louisiana migrant. Teviston, California

Your pictures seem to emphasize the traits we all have in common rather than those that set us apart.
I am a believer in the idea that all people are essentially the same; it is circumstance that determines the rest.

How important is it to get the general public to pay attention to these overlooked corners of the country?
It’s quite important. I think that the collective understanding of this country is very superficial, and big parts of it are just left out, deemed unimportant. It’s not just about being unfair; it’s something that makes for the kind of places where things are allowed to fester. It’s a whole other world, an alternate America. To the extent that my photographs can play a part in addressing some of that, I’m more than proud.

Do you think it’s possible to break through the wall of inertia and ignorance with which we insulate ourselves from unpleasant truths?
I believe that when you present something that’s real, that’s well done, and told in an honest way, people are moved. I think the bemoaning that this has been lost is more often used as an excuse for not doing the work, or for excusing poor quality: “Oh we can’t do this because no one cares anymore.” I think that’s too simplistic, too easy a way out.

Does photography retains its power to move people today, considering how many images confront us daily?
Yes, I do. I think people can tell when something is real, and done honestly. Maybe the proliferation of images can help to set serious work apart, because it so obviously stands out from the rest.

Three Rocks, California

I was intrigued by your statement in another interview that it’s not necessarily important to understand why you are drawn to photographing a particular subject.

We all have a particular place, thing or idea that resonates with us, and to which we are drawn, because it just feels right. It’s the same with taking photographs. The strength of photography is based on spontaneity and intuitiveness, and going in laden with preconceptions or formulaic approaches can get in the way of that. I try to simply absorb as much of a particular place as I can—all the little things that maybe can’t be photographed—internalize them, and let that feeling guide me. Ultimately, it’s the degree of affinity for what’s in front of you that determines the quality of your work: how in tune you are, and how deeply it moves you. I think the pictures reveal all of that.

How much time do you generally spend on a particular project?
The beginning and ending dates get kind of fuzzy for me. I go to these places regularly, but generally, I’ve spent anywhere from six months to a couple of years working in some of these towns. Sometimes things come quickly, and sometimes they don’t. I try to be open and just show up.

How does the work you’ve done in Mexico, Guatemala and Bolivia intersect with your San Joaquin Valley projects?
Latin America has always held a fascination for me, particularly Mexico, where I have spent the most time, because of the obvious links between here and there. It feels like a direct connection, a continuation of the same world. Working there is for me the exact same thing, addressing the same concerns.

Who are some of your photographic influences? I ask because your pictures remind me a bit of Josef Koudelka’s gypsy photographs. There are visual parallels in terms of how you both group people within the frame, push grain to the extreme, and impart a mood of mystery and ambiguity. His work also had a strong yet discreet political edge.
Well, that’s very flattering. I have to say, though, the amount of time I spend thinking about the mechanics of photography, how pictures are put together, is very small. It’s more general than that; I just have an itching notion of the world I’m trying to represent and I try to be attuned to that, rather than try to impose some sort of “photographic” approach on the situation. To me, a picture is something that happens, and my part in the process is simply to be receptive, to be open. I don’t think you can force things. All of the photographic aspects—camera, lens, film—are pretty much settled for me. Now, it’s just about using it as a kind of language, of sharpening the portrayal.

Dawn. Firebaugh, California

Some of your images seem to flirt with a subtle visual surrealism, which makes me wonder if you’re open to introducing subject elements to what is essentially documentary photography.
If certain images register as surreal it’s because surrealism is part of that world, and represents a part of life there that I want to convey. I’m not injecting anything; I’m pointing out what’s there, hopefully in a strong way. In other words, I’m trying to build a world in the photographs, and subjectivity is part of that process, I suppose, but I don’t use that as a license to turn everything into something about me. That’s a bit too simple, an excuse people use when their portrayal is out of tune. For me, it’s about confronting my subjects with a camera and them confronting me with their reality. That puts things on an equal footing, and lets them establish the rules of their world. Because it’s clearly their world, not mine.

Speaking of grain, do you push your film to enhance the mood of the images?

I don’t think about it that much. Like I said, I have been using the same film and everything for a fair amount of time. To me, it just looks right. It’s just how photographs should look.

W. Eugene Smith felt that to be a successful photographer, one had to have conviction that nothing was more important than photography. Do you also feel that way?
God, I understand. All that I can say is that I think you get to a point where you know what you want out of your work, and it’s hard to let something go until you think you’ve accomplished it, until it satisfies that initial ambition you had. That can lead to all sorts of complications, but I think if you stop doing that, stop the pursuit, you’re done.

(Visit to expand your perceptions of an America largely hidden from view. An abridged version of this interview appeared in the September 2008 issue of B&W magazine.)