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In No Great Hurry: 13 Lessons in Life with Saul Leiter (2012)

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By Robert Kenneth Dator.

Every single bit of visual stimulus that comes to the human brain via the visual cortex must be interpreted, learned, and filed away for future reference. This morgue of literally countless images—and more important, bits of images—from every conceivable axial point of reference serves as a vocabulary. The purpose of so much storage is, in part, in aid of preventing the very busy brain from having to do all that sorting and interpreting each and every time we see… say, a human hand: because our brains have filed away an incalculable number of visual cues that we define as “hand,” to know the tip of one finger is to know the rest of the assumed whole, no matter in what size, shape, color, or permutation. A hand is a hand is a hand, or something like a hand, and so forth. Now, what has this to do with Saul Leiter?

SL3Saul Leiter is a visual artist. He is among the most influential visual artists of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. And what Leiter, seminal photographer and sometimes painter, has in common with all artists is his gift for helping the human brain learn to see in vastly different ways and expand its prodigious visual vocabulary; to help it gain and master an acuity with form that heightens our perceptions of motion, color, deep space, negative space, positive space; the sharp, the obscure, the soft, the distinct and indistinct; the representational and the abstract, and the abstract that turns out isn’t really abstract after all, at least, not any more than a single puzzle piece is when compared to a nut without a bolt. In short: to see better is to see more, and more deeply and more appreciatively, more completely—this is but one more contribution of the artist to the lives of others. However, in the case of Leiter, that contribution is nothing short of mammoth. The man is to Modern Art what the printing press was to civilization. If this reads like a bold claim, think of Leiter as the bridge over the gulf between the tireless shore of the academe, which held that photography was a technical “mechanical-industrial art,” and therefore somehow lesser than Art, or inferior to the Arts of painting and sculpture; and the vanguard who held that if anything, Photography was a New Art, and an ironically organic form fostered in the workshop of the technical age, one that was painterly in composition, and sculptural in light and shadow, and then along came Saul Leiter, and so history followed.

The tribute of In No Great Hurry: 13 Lessons in Life with Saul Leiter is among those delicious, carefully crafted treats of artistic accomplishment that can slip through the cracks of the yearly documentary offerings like the crumbs of a fine Danish Wedding Cookie. Find this film before it melts into the background; see it, share it, and appreciate what a truly good documentary can be—if for no other reason than that there are so many bad ones out there; so many who imagine the form is essentially simple, or worse, underestimate entirely the extravagant task set before any documentarian, but particularly and especially the task set before those charged with recording art and artists.

SL6‘How hard can it be to tell the story of a living, seminal artist—through his own medium?’ The reader’s initial reaction to this stylized statement is where I rest my case. In No Great Hurry is a vivid, masterful work that communicates an honestly compelling power from the first frame, due in no small part to the exuberant confidence and good-natured cheek of director Tomas Leach framing and shooting as his subject might see these shots composed himself; the camera moving and panning at the pensive pace of Saul Leiter. For that matter, every shot, every piece of music, every cut and transition moves at the speed of Leiter and so it is a symphony the tempo of which is set in the languorous signatures of contemplation.

The freshness of the cinematography is derivative in that it acts as a natural extension of its subject, but it eludes the hackneyed sense of that word when spoken to discredit homage by dilettantes. Leach’s camera loves to range benignly about the studio as any one of us might, allowed access to that trove of immense secrets. Box after box, some with burst seams, others spotted with age, boxes that once held film, or paper, or filters, or camera bodies. Boxes that yet hold negatives and tantalizing prints and slides, kodachrome and ektachrome. Boxes and files and envelopes marked with Saul’s mature pencil hand, the pressure of which mysteriously never seems to vary regardless of the surface onto which he has written: “Early Negatives,” “Prints for the Gallery,” and all such enticing and indecently evocative imperatives, which make the viewer want to go mad with the lust to peek and probe and wander at will through all that we cannot see behind paper and pasteboard, plastic and wood. To touch these artifacts and forgotten prints, to feel them, to bring our eyes to within inches of these actual images; to rummage about, and gently, to smell the dust and powdery lavender age of a man’s life; to raise our spectacles for a closer look under our curious noses as though we might take hold of just the faintest splinter of that potency—this is what we are moved to do—to reach out and touch, first the works of Saul Leiter (just to say we had had the honor), and then the man himself: an avuncular figure, steady, kindly, compelling, who doesn’t need us but whom we desperately need.

Actor, writer and director, Robert Kenneth Dator worked in feature film and television in the United States and Australia before teaching and attending Graduate School. Rob and family live in Greensboro, North Carolina, where he is hard at work on several projects including the website Cinepsyche, currently under construction.

In No Great Hurry: 13 Lessons in Life with Saul Leiter will be released in the US on January 3rd, 2014.

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