Saturday, October 10, 2009
Shadows and light
Lunch Outside Safeway, Oakland, California, September 2007.
"Every picture has its shadows / And it has some source of light / Blindness, blindness and sight." Joni Mitchell wrote this in her 1980 album Shadows and Light. Joni knows about shadows and light. She is, by her own admission, a painter first and a musician second, "a painter derailed by circumstance," a lonely painter who lives in a box of paint.
Or consider the shadows and light of photographer Saul Leiter, a painter like Mitchell, who used 1950s New York City as a canvas for his silhouettes and splashes of color. Leiter's experiments in color photography have been spectacularly reissued by Steidl in the book Early Color. His elegiac photographs of mid-century New York is a world of acutely observed fragments seen through oblique angles and reflecting surfaces.
Leiter's New York has none of Weegee's morbidity, Meyerowitz's frenzy, or Bruce Blanchard's grotesques. His street photography is imbued with an unlikely serenity, as if the urban madness has temporarily been put on hold so we can savor the cracks on the wall or the "T" on the glass pane. Even a densely packed image like Reflection (1958) has a feeling of repose.
The gossamer lightness of Leiter's painterly images has been compared to the impressionist works of Bonnard or Vuillard, colorists whom Leiter admired very much. Through Boards (1957), however, with its lively street scene peeking through the flat planes of red and black, is reminiscent of Mark Rothko's No. 14 which was painted three years later.
Saul Leiter is without doubt the most underappreciated photographer of his generation. His poetic street photography is unlike anyone else's who worked the genre. Photographs are not reality, he says. "... they are little fragments of souvenirs of that unfinished world."
Joni Mitchell, Four Paintings.
Saul Leiter, Taxi, 1957.
Saul Leiter, Phone Call, 1957.
Saul Leiter, T, 1950.
Saul Leiter, Harlem, 1960.
Saul Leiter, Reflection, 1958.
Saul Leiter, Near the Tanager, 1954.
Saul Leiter, Pizza, Patterson, 1952.
Saul Leiter, Cracks, 1957.
Saul Leiter, Man Reading, 1957.
Saul Leiter, Through Boards, 1960.
Mark Rothko, No. 14, 1960.