Archives for 2014

posted in December, 2014

saul leiter: in no great hurry

SaulLeiter_31_Exacta 1948
Exacta, 1948, Saul Leiter

I’ve just watched In No Great Hurry: 13 Lessons in Life with Saul Leiter, a 2013 documentary by Tomas Leach. Understated and quiet, the film follows Leiter around his life, self-consciously walking the line between wanting to get closer to the man and the artist while not wanting to be intrusive — a tension that runs through the film and gives a tentative, hesitant feel to the camera work and Leach’s side of the conversation. Leach’s awe of Leiter was palpable in the film and understandable — but it sometimes got in the way of his filmmaking; it was visible in his choices to the point that it narrowed Leiter’s story and the viewer’s experience of it.

Most of the film was shot in Leiter’s studio in the East Village, where he’d lived since 1952, and cuts between Leiter speaking to the camera, making coffee, slowly rummaging through piles of film, prints, papers and boxes accrued over decades, and walking the streets near his studio looking for things to shoot. The 13 lessons provide the film’s structure, but within it, the meandering pace and lingering focus on everyday surfaces keep Leiter more obscured and contained than revealed, which I found unsatisfying. And which drove me to pause the film multiple times to revisit Leiter’s work to get a deeper and more direct experience of his way of looking and seeing.

Yet by the end of the film, I found the low-key encounter with Leiter as directed by Leach satisfying on its own terms if not mine. It gave me a more complete picture of Leiter than I’d had, and I walked away convinced of the value of being, like Leiter, in no great hurry — either in life or in art. And pausing to follow my own meandering diversions made watching the film a richer and more complete experience for me.

I find Leiter’s work deeply affecting. His photos give you privileged entry into private worlds and lyrical moments which, captured in time, live out of time, beyond their moment, forever accessible. Leiter died in November 2013, which makes Leach’s film a lovely gift to Leiter and the world. As Teju Cole writes in an obituary of Leiter in the New Yorker:

Undoubtedly, the charm of some of Leiter’s pictures lies in the fact that they depict fifties places, fifties cars, and fifties people (we rarely dress so well today), and that the analog reds and greens are more moving, somehow, than what our own digital cameras or streetscapes can offer up. But pictures such as “Through Boards” (1957), “Canopy” (1958), and “Walking With Soames” (1958) would be winners in any era. They are high points of lyric photography which, once seen, become—like all the best pictures and poems and paintings—a permanent part of our lives.

chris killip: boo on a horse

Seacoal Camp, Lynemouth, Northumberland, 1987, by Chris Killip.

on winter’s edge

seacoal camp lynemouth 1984
Cookie in the snow, Seacoal Camp, Lynemouth, 1985, by Chris Killip.

christmas truce letter from the trenches

dougan letter trenchesFrom the Guardian:

It was penned 100 years ago in the freezing trenches of the western front; a letter from a British army officer to his mother describing in vivid detail the extraordinary Christmas truce as soldiers from both sides laid down their weapons.

Second Lt Alfred Dougan Chater, of the 2nd Gordon Highlanders, writes of the moment when the men met in no-man’s land, exchanging souvenirs and cigars as impromptu truces were held along parts of the front between Christmas and New Year, with joint burial parties for the dead.

The letter has been reproduced by the Royal Mail, with permission from the Chater family, to mark the anniversary of the historic truce and the role played by the postal service during the first world war.

Remarkably, Dougan mentions nothing about Sainsbury’s or having a Sainsbury’s branded experience of the truce that day in 1914.

Dated Christmas Day and signed “Dougan”, the letter reads: “Dearest Mother, I am writing this in the trenches in my ‘dug out’ – with a wood fire going and plenty of straw it is rather cosy, although it is freezing hard and real Christmas weather.

“I think I have seen today one of the most extraordinary sights that anyone has ever seen. About 10 o’clock this morning I was peeping over the parapet when I saw a German, waving his arms, and presently two of them got out of their trench and came towards ours.

“We were just going to fire on them when we saw they had no rifles, so one of our men went to meet them and in about two minutes the ground between the two lines of trenches was swarming with men and officers of both sides, shaking hands and wishing each other a happy Christmas.

“This continued for about half an hour when most of the men were ordered back to the trenches. For the rest of the day nobody has fired a shot and the men have been wandering about at will on the top of the parapet and carrying straw and firewood about in the open – we have also had joint burial parties with a service for some dead, some German and some ours, who were lying out between the lines.”

He writes of shaking hands himself with several of the German officers and subsequently describes another “parley with the Germans in the middle” where cigarettes and autographs were exchanged and “some more people took photos”.

Watch the Sainsbury’s 2014 Christmas commercial ‘Christmas is for sharing’ and read my post about it here, or listen to what Russell Brand thinks of it here.

For some real, unbranded history, visit the First World War galleries on the Imperial War Museum’s website.

Final fighting fronts

russell brand on sainsbury’s christmas ad

Yes, in their 2014 Christmas commercial that re-imagines the 1914 Christmas truce, Sainsbury’s has reduced World War I to nothing more than a branding opportunity to exploit. Which means they’re also exploiting the people who died after this historical event ended and killing resumed. It’s a piece of history they’re trying to rebrand as a Sainsbury’s feel-good moment, and it’s a cheap manipulation, an attempt to transfer some of the mythology of that poignant historical moment to the Sainsbury’s brand. As Russell says, ‘football, love, chocolate — is nothing sacred?’ You can read my original post on Sainsbury’s 2014 Christmas commercial here.

david bailey: east end woman, 1960s london

bailey east end woman
From the Guardian’s series ‘my best shot,’ David Bailey tells the story behind this photo, taken around 1961:

The shot’s a statement on the social climate at the time – and at any time really. I was living in the East End in the 60s, which was probably more of a nightmare than living there through the war.

[ … ]

I sort of remember the day. But there were lots of days like it. I’d spend maybe eight hours taking pictures round the East End. I wasn’t just mindlessly clicking away, though. I’d think about things: you have to. I’m not one of those photographers who doesn’t know what he’s doing, so takes hundreds of pictures in the hope there’s one good one. I do one click then move on. By the look of the picture, it was quite sunny – the reflection wouldn’t have been as strong otherwise. I prefer London in the rain, though. I just find it so beautiful.

I started shooting in the East End because it was where I was from. I lived there all through the blitz. When I was about three and a half, the flat next door was flattened, so we had to move from Leytonstone to East Ham. I was six and a half when the war ended and quite used to bombsites by then. I’ve never let myself be limited by my background, though.

saul leiter 2


saul leiter


merle park in rehearsal

merle park royal ballet
merle park royal ballet
Merle Park in rehearsal and more expressive than I’ve ever seen her in performance — here, she actually looks like she’s enjoying herself. In performance, she always seemed too controlled and much more focused on the precision of her technique than on dancing. Which, for the viewer, was a bit boring. Not to be critical — it’s just nice to see something more, and something a little more lovely and lyrical, in her dancing. Photos by Keith Money.

chris killip: helen and her hoola-hoop

killip helen hoola hoop
Chris Killip: Helen and her hoola-hoop, Seacoal Camp, Lynemouth, Northumberland. This and many other exquisite photos are included in the book Chris Killip: In Flagrante.