There are two contrasting and equally enthralling photographic exhibitions in London right now: Saul Leiter: Retrospective at The Photographers’ Gallery (until April 3rd) and Gathered Leaves: Photographs by Alec Soth in the Media Space at the Science Museum (until March 28th).
Leiter’s work, his colour work especially, is so clearly that of someone who is also a painter: his interest is in colour, texture, form. Individuals glimpsed, frequently in mirrors, through glass misted with condensation, through mist or snow, are little more than points of focus. Leiter cares little, in his images at least, in who they are, where they have come from or are going to.
These photographs live by their beauty: too many seen at once (a danger the current show does not fall into) would be, perhaps, too rich.
Alec Soth’s work, as displayed in the airier galleries of the Science Museum’s Media Space, has more variety, partly because of his decision to work as much in black and white and in colour, but more specifically due to the fact that he works on distinct projects –as he says on his web site, I like to take pictures and I make books. So, for Broken Manual, he tracked down and photographed people who had chosen to live in isolation within the United States, both the people and their environment; and in Looking for Love, he matched images to numerous actual love letters (most often letters of rejection) that he had solicited.
Some of Soth’s photographs have a formal beauty that makes you want to stop and gaze irrespective of their context, but it is the context – and the chance t0 do so that this rare show provides – that makes his work both individual and outstanding.
I’ve been lucky enough to have seen both of these shows more than once and feel lucky to have done so: to take on for a moment, the argument arising from the decision to remove thousands of images from the Royal Photographic Society’s collection currently held at the National Media Museum in Bradford and transfer them to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, wouldn’t it be great if it were possible for these two exhibitions to travel beyond the capital to Bradford, or Manchester, or Nottingham, or, indeed, anywhere north of the Watford Gap?