|Saul Leiter's TAXI (American, 1923-2013)|
What about the photo’s action? Why do we seem to be moving? Is it that our perspective is slightly behind the car we’re looking at- like we’re trying to catch up? Everything changes if we’re ahead of the car, looking back. What about the man’s hand? Maybe he’s trying to find something to hold on to or he’s pointing while yelling directions. The entire photo is different, stagnant even, without this hand. We're simply next to a car stopped in traffic. What about the back window in brilliant silver? Hints of a rocket ship? An overstatement maybe, but we can't see through the glass, which does cause a blur of light and speed.
What about the man being dressed in a suit? This too influences our impression. An important person pointing or holding on to something or both? Not only does the photo change entirely if the cab is empty, it changes if the person is dressed casually. Then it’s the weekend or just a tourist perhaps. With our photo here, it’s a workday: the streets are bustling and we have an important person with an important place to be!
Also, you can’t ignore the the camera’s exposure which puts a quarter of the photo into darkness. The cab driver in silhouette adds mystery, forcing us to imagine this person. The exposure also creates the black space in the bottom left corner that extends across the entire bottom of the photo. This space not only provides an entry point into the photo but also a place where we can sit (hide?) and observe. The photo would be cluttered and claustrophobic without this black space.
Upon first glance, this photo seems like just an abstract blur of color. Upon second, you notice how the photo changes entirely if even the smallest of detail was different.
While Dick Johnson is Dead seems to start in this direction, it actually veers down a different path entirely. About 15 minutes or so in, a crew member talks about the death of his own father which prompts a tender moment where Dick talks about the death of his wife. At this point, we realize the slapstick irony of the film's premise is secondary to what the film's actually about: the portrait of a kind and sensitive soul. A point illustrated even clearer when Dick talks about the childhood shame he had towards his own body and in particular, his deformed feet. We see a closeup of his feet as he describes this shame. What's illuminating is the way he describes it which is similar to how an elderly person often describes such things- not with the shame once felt, but with a sort of curiosity or amusement, almost as if it happened to someone else. I say all of this to say, don't let the premise of Dick Johnson is Dead turn you away (or draw you in too much). The film is more about Mr. Johnson living than dying.