Moments with Saul - some personal reflections
The following are some recollections that I have about Saul that augment to some the images that I present on this site. He was a fascinating and unique artist. That he let me into his life, is astonishing to me and for which I'll always be grateful.
W. Eugene Smith
Saul knew a lot of established artists and photographers. When we walked around New York together, we would occasionally run into interesting people. I remember one day we were on our way home from the studio. We were walking on the south side of 23th St heading to 3rd Ave and home when Saul turned to me and said, “That’s Gene”, and followed a man into a doorway down the street. I knew he was referring to, W. Eugene Smith because Saul sometimes talked about Gene. Instead of going in with Saul to meet Eugene, I stayed outside and I watched through the glass door as Saul chatted with Gene in the hallway lifting his Minox 35 to snap a few photos. Years later he gave me several photographs of Eugene, the one I witnessed and another taken of Eugene before he when off to Spain.
At some point when I was working for Saul, he asked if I could repair his darkroom timer (seen sitting in the foreground). We both had the same timers. The day I returned the timer, on our way home, we ran into Louis Faurer and Saul invited him upstairs and, of course, immediately began to photograph him. Behind the two is a favorite Roman Vishniac print that Saul owned. It was typical of Saul to spend time snapping portraits of people he found interesting. Seen here is one photographer photographing another iconic photographer. My photo of them was taken with an Olympus XA, a pocket 35 camera that Saul and I both used around that time. Saul was very fond of small cameras.
I miss Soames. She was a lovely and spirited person. Soames, Saul and I would sometimes have long meandering conversations in her apartment. Soames was Saul's partner for many years. They did almost everything together. They where confidants and lovers. Soames also managed his business affairs for a while. She was a former model and a painter. As a painter, she was always a little shy about her work which was unique and very different from Saul's. I think living with Saul and recognizing his natural genius for the medium probably intimidated her somewhat. Saul on the other hand, loved her work and constantly defended it. She and Saul were great fans of the painter Bonnard. Tragically, she died early in her sixties. I do believe that Saul was never quite the same or as happy after her death.
Saul lived in several apartments during the time that I knew him. Both were located in the same building on 10th Street. Originally, the upper apartment was Saul’s and the lower apartment was Soames'. Later he took over the lower apartment after Soames past away.
The space in Saul’s apartments changed from the time I first met him to the time I last visited him. Originally tidy and spare, his apartments later developed into cluttered over-crowded surrealistic tangles of objet d’eart and papers. It was often difficult to navigate around without knocking things over. Some of this was the result of him retiring from commercial photography and being forced to bring home everything contained in his studio. Some of it was his never ending interest in books, his interest in seeing what other people created, and his prolific production as an artist. To see it in person was astonishing - everywhere where piles of treasures waiting to be discovered. It was an amazing maze of books, art, photographs, paintings, camera equipment, pens, and random artifacts.
Saul often used the shifting chaotic piles as inspiration to create temporary assemblages, sometimes photographing them before they devolved back into their natural state of disorder. I wonder if that might have been one of the reasons that he choose to live within the distorder. He was constantly fascinated by the changing light in his apartment throughout the day and time of year.
The last time I saw Saul
I saw Saul quite a bit while I lived in NYC but after I left, I could only return periodically, usually to stay a week or so and then return to California. We corresponded in the intervals. In 2013 I visited him in the Spring. At some point we were having dinner and he filled up the card on his digital camera so I lent him a spare card which he later returned to me. Not thinking much about it, nearly a year later I discovered a few images from that evening on the card. One was this portrait of me, one of his last, while we were eating at the Veselka on 2nd avenue - a favorite spot for him.
Later that year I was asked if I could come out and help him for a short time in the Fall. I was planning to visit anyway for his 90th birthday but I came out early. I was aware that he was not feeling well but little did I realize that he was seriously ill and this would be my last visit with him.
I feel extremely fortunate to have been with Saul during the last few weeks of his life. I had no idea when I arrived how rapidly his condition would deteriorate. Saul suffered from lung cancer as a result of a lifelong habit of smoking. Along with a small group of Saul's friends, I helped manage his care. During that time but before things got too serious many close friends would stop by to visit. This is one of my last photographs of Saul chatting with Bob Benton. He's just taken or getting ready to do another snap.
I was also privileged to be with him on the evening of Nov 26, 2013 when he left us forever. Alan Kleinberg, I, and Pauline, a nurse, were the only people with him. The moment of his passing was quiet, peaceful and, I was surprised to find, quite beautiful. He let us know that his time was coming. I think of it now as one of the most intimate moments that I've ever experienced. My journey with Saul was a deeply personal one and I was fortunate that it spanned many years. He was a good friend, led a full life, and he changed me forever.