Saul Leiter, secret genius photographer of the East Village, turned 90 this year, yet his work is just now achieving widespread recognition — most recently in the form of In No Great Hurry, a documentary playing this week at the Doc NYC Festival.
According to filmmaker Tomas Leach, Leiter “could have been lauded as the great pioneer of color photography.” Leiter’s photographs capture life in the East Village, the artist’s home for over half a century. His striking images are fleeting glimpses of passers-by who are swallowed up by the hurried movement of city life and obscured by the glass, concrete, and steel of shop windows, buildings, and cars. Yet for all this city’s grit, Leiter’s images are dreamier moments of urban life captured by the unseen observer.
In No Great Hurry’s NYC premiere comes on the heels of Leiter’s first solo retrospective at Kunst Haus in Vienna earlier this year, which included the artist’s early forays into color photography (and we do mean early: he started using color film back in 1946, before its use in fine art became more widespread in the ’70s).
B+B spoke with Tomas Leach over the phone about his experience with the hermetic, eccentric, sometimes surly photographer and the process of profiling of an exceedingly withdrawn artist as he attempts to reconcile newfound fame with a lifelong indifference to public praise.
I got a copy of his book Early Color and just found all the work amazingly beautiful, and fresh, and unusual. And there was a small interview at the front, which made him sound really elusive and interesting at the same time, so I arranged to come and find him, basically. And that was the starting point, that’s what brought me to him and the story, was how much I loved his work.
I hunted an old man down ruthlessly is basically the way I did it. I approached his gallery and they were quite interested. They had said that he was very personal, and kept to himself quite a lot, but he’d be interested in watching some of my work if I sent it over, if I sent him some films I’d made. And he watched them and said if I was in New York he’d meet me for a coffee. And so I bought a ticket to New York from London and met him for a coffee. And then it took me another year and a half to persuade him to make the film with me.
He was desperate to put me off and told me I should be making a film about other people rather than him and that there was an endless list of people more interesting and more worthy than he was. Throughout filming he told me it was a terrible idea that I was doing this, and that I’d come from Europe to hound him.
Yeah, I did, I loved the area and I loved, like, we’d often stroll the few blocks around his house together or I’d go out and grab us coffee, and so I became really familiar with that area and really fond of it. And it seems like historically it feels like the right place to have been as well given its history of art and people who lived there making their work.
I find that both endlessly inspiring and admirable that he’s not chasing success or any kind of end product. He’s never chasing the end goal. He’s doing things for the love of doing them, and for creating and taking photos for the love of doing that. Which is something I find incredibly admirable and inspiring but also really humble. It’s kind of a really truthful pursuit of what he thinks is beautiful.
“In No Great Hurry” screens this Saturday, November 16 at 1:45 PM at SVA Theatre on West 23rd Street (you can grip some tickets ). The IFC Center is also participating in Doc NYC Festival and showing some pretty rad stuff November 14-21.