Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Saul Leiter: Sheer Beauty

Saul Leiter, Phone Call, 1957

I've been holding on to these photographs by Saul Leiter for a while now, waiting for a flash of inspiration. The truth is that I know very little about him, apart from that his experiments with his Leica on the streets of New York in the 1940s and 1950s are textured, abstract and instinctive works of sheer beauty.
     Trained as a rabbi, he would later turn to fashion magazine shoots to earn a living, but in between times he showed that street photography needn't solely be a place for sweaty socio-realism. Others have done that before and since but perhaps what is most exciting about Leiter's work is that he didn't strain to find his best images. There are no forced narratives in his portfolio, no romantic cliches or staged shots. His subjects are cafe tables, steamed-up windows and half-painted signs - stylish vintage ones, sure, but nothing that we couldn't find at least a variation of today, in any street, in any town. Leiter simply knew how best to frame the odd reflections and distorted shapes that he found, elevating them to something much more mysterious and enduring.
     Collections on his work had been notoriously difficult to get hold of - at one stage, a first edition of Early Color book was going for $600 on eBay - but the small, feverish demand for his work has finally been acknowledged. A second printing of Early Color is out now, London's Faggionato Fine Art ran a small show of prints last year and if Amazon is to be believed, a reprint of Early Black And White is due soon. Fingers crossed. In the meantime, you can see a selection of the photographer's best images here.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Shop America: Cut Price Design

Taschen have got a small sale on and while I wouldn't normally mention it, they have one cheap title purely worth checking out. Shop America - Midcentury Storefront Design 1938-1950 is a throwback to a time when pharmacies, tailors and "dairy bars" weren't conceived as mere earth-bound commercial outlets but more a place for some sort of religious epiphany.
     Art deco curves, dramatic perspectives and candybar colours all contribute to the retro-futurist tone but it is the shiny gloss of post-war optimism that really galvanises the whole book. Editor Jim Heimann has done a stunning job writing, researching and collating the book, making it a must for designers or period fanatics.
     You can read an extract of the book here or buy it for just £9.99 (RRP £29.99) from the publisher's own website here. And no, I'm not on commission...

Sunday, 3 May 2009

Robert Frank: Sad Poems For Sick People

In 2009, fifty years after The Americans was first published in the US, everybody loves Robert Frank. Beat Generation fanatics think he's hip, documentary photographers praise his unflinching honesty and cultural historians regularly cite him as one of the most influential artists of the mid-20th century. In the book, Frank summed up a country on the cusp of change, laying bare some shared truths in his grainy monochrome pictures. Or did he? Another book I've been re-reading this week reminded me quite how selective hindsight can be.
     Published in 1986, Robert Frank - New York to Nova Scotia contains letters to and from Frank, essays by Kerouac and Walker Evans, and various ephemera from the mid-1950s. There are a few of photographs too; some rare, some classics, like 1956's Political Rally, Chicago, pictured right.
     However, one of the most fascinating parts of the book is the various contemporary reactions to The Americans. A spread titled "An Off-Beat View Of The U.S.A" reprints an article from the May 1960 issue of Popular Photography magazine, in which their many editors offer their opinions on Frank's new book. Here are a few of my favourites...

Les Barry: "...Frank's book actually explores a very limited aspect of life in the United States, and it is the least attractive aspect, at that. It's doubtful that he really thinks all Americans are simple beer-drinking, jukebox-playing, pompous, selfish, intolerant, money-worshipping, flag-waving, sacrilegious, insensitive folks."

Bruce Downes: "Frank is sensitive, but apparently he is without love. There is no pity in his images. They are images of hate and hopelessness, of desolation and pre-occupation with death. They are images of an America seen by a joyless man who hates the country of his adoption. ... The book seems to me a mean use to put a camera to."

John Durniak: "It is obvious that Mr. Frank had 1934 eyes and blinders on when shooting. The publishers have left a word out of the title. It should read: Some Americans. That is exactly what Frank has done, photographed some Americans. But has he photographed what these people are really like? His pictures are unconvincing. ... Frank possibly has done 5 percent of the job, if that."

James M. Zanutto: "Robert Frank's book is described in the introduction by Jack Kerouac as a "sad poem." A sad poem for sick people might be more accurate. ... Yet all photographers are encouraged to make personal statements with their pictures. In the case of Robert Frank, one wonders if his pictures contribute to our knowledge of anything other than the personality of Robert Frank."

The Americans remains a stunning body of work, but it is interesting to hear how sceptical some of these comments were. Affronted by the arrogance of the Swiss outsider and unaware of the wholesale changes that the 1960s would bring, the pivotal nature of the times and the defining qualities of Frank's book weren't immediately apparent. I wonder what those same critics might have thought of The Americans by, say, 1970 or 1980?
     I should point out that the harshness of some of the comments from Popular Photography were tempered in their wider context and other editors were entirely positive, praising the tongue-in-cheek subtlety of Frank's title and his "lovely and evocative" images. Nevertheless, it's a fresh perspective in this anniversary year, something that the contrary and controversial photographer would surely welcome.

Parade - Hoboken, New Jersey, 1955