On Inspiration

Several years ago I watched In No Great Hurry, the documentary about the late photographer, Saul Leiter. It was one of the first things I remember being inspired by in my early adult years. At the time, I didn’t quite grasp what was happening, so I went about my late twenties and early thirties trying to get there. Like a cat chasing its tail I had to revisit the circle, always thinking I was just about there. I know now, it is not a body or a place. There is the roar of flow. Inspiration amidst the reminder that it is all happening. 

I was living in Milwaukee at the time. Miserable in my job. A stranger to myself, wondering why my motions – sitting in meetings, presenting my analyses, speaking words and shaking hands – felt mimicked. Like someone listening so intently that they mouth consonants or vowels back to the person speaking to them. Listening, like photography, is about choosing. What to keep in, what to keep out. Slowly, I learned to listen to inspiration. At a meeting once, as everyone around the table in their suits were talking about interest rates, I watched an invisible alchemist take my glass of water and the afternoon sunlight and turn it into the greatest show on earth.

“There are the things that are out in the open and then there are the things that are hidden, and life has more to do, the real world has more to do with what is hidden, maybe. You think?” Saul says In No Great Hurry. Yes, and his photography embodies this statement. His work is panoply. It’s wisps and blurs. It is the middle of something. No known beginning or end. It hovers. Scours at certainty, at anything that immediately comes to mind. It reminds you of it all, but mostly that we are perceivers. Which goes both ways. Perceivers and perceived.

The real world is also going to the doctor, and when she asks if anyone is trying to control or manipulate me, I say “my mother” half-jokingly and we both laugh. Because we would all be too lonely if it was only collages of colors and shapes and hidden faces. Perceived and perceiving, yes, but also making a way through the world everyday with a little less overcompensation. And to find each other, even for a brief moment, where it feels like nothing more needs to be said or done or thought, is also to scour at certainty. Because certainty is about you, not about connection. Certainty is saying I’ve arrived. Telling. Always telling. Never listening.

One of my favorite images of his is titled: Ana, New York, 1950’s. It’s a black and white portrait of a woman looking down, a shaft of light hitting the upper left side of her face. In this way, the light takes on a mask-like quality. Her left eye looks smaller, different than her right. The dark side of her face contains more details. You can’t really know from the image what she looks like. If you saw her somewhere else in full sun or deep shade or the hum of fluorescent lights, you would not know it was her. Same goes for many of the people in his photos. Faces are hidden, half-hidden, smudged by condensation, or reflected in a broken mirror. If there are visible expressions they usually are mysterious, searching. A consolation for those of us who don’t recognize ourselves at different angles, don’t recognize ourselves at all sometimes. Who search, and still feel fractured, uneven. A flicker of feeling understood, like laughing with a doctor you barely know, who for a split second gets it.

In this interview Saul often ends his sentences in questions. He verbally meanders. Stares off into space. Pauses, seemingly lost in his mind, leaving you teetering on a hope that the interviewer will check on him. But he comes back. Hands in the air. Red socks ablaze. Like the red umbrellas in his pictures. He is not caught up by interpretation. The why of his pictures. The layers of meaning others, like me, have imposed on his images. If he is certain and insistent about anything in this interview it’s that he wanted to get away from his father to follow what he liked. It’s this complicated purity that I’m drawn to and inspired by, like the blur of activity and colors in many of his photos, reduced to a level of abstraction. A question of how do you feel instead of what do you see.













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