The term, the “new normal” has crept into our conversations a little too much now and increasingly we are all dealing it seems with health issues from the lock down, but in the case of the artist Saul Fletcher, whose work I loved, and who was almost a friend to me, mental illness must have been the hair trigger that ended his life, and that of his partner last week in a murder, suicide in Berlin. Nothing now feels normal.
Like every tragedy, his work has now been steamrolled by this awful event which will define his legacy, and it feels morally wrong to continue to admire it. Something similar happened to Carl Andre whose life has been the subject of continued rumors and folklore over the apparent suicide of his partner, and to this day I guess he struggles in public with the risk of confrontations from accusers with long memories and their own anger issues.
It seems a little poignant, or naive, to admit that I was drawn to Saul Fletcher’s photographs for their darkness, frequently studio based and technically seductive portraits made on a medium format film camera, catching small details and delivering rich tones, one of the reasons that so many photographers did not move to a digital medium. The studio walls offered a richness to the imagery and drew the eye into the subject itself – the artist, his friends, his dog…sometimes assemblages of found items. The portraits dwelt on its subject’s vulnerabilities and fears; the artist disabled, a woman naked, the dog fearful.
I learned that he was largely self-taught and started taking images of the UK countryside of his Northern home. These pictures resonated most with me as I did the same when I was quite young, I connected immediately the mood he could create, something both slight and yet profound in the dark blurry hillsides. There was one picture in particular that might have been taken from a moving car….and as someone who drove a lot in England and saw these empty or near empty landscapes often wishing to stop and photograph them myself I felt an envy and admiration that these prosaic views were memorialized.
After his show in Anton Kern in New York I started following him on Instagram and found we had a few friends in common. I wrote him a note making clear my appreciation for his work and was surprised by a reply and over the course of a year or so we exchanged messages several times. But I was particularly happy when I received a note from him last week which said about my own photographs “I enjoy seeing your photos, they have a peacefulness and thoughtful composure, someone who “sees” it’s a rare thing…” we went on to discuss politics and share our desire for Trump to be out of office. I had hoped to be able to pass through Berlin and meet him in person, perhaps have dinner at the Paris Bar, there was a fantasy of laughter and shared insights across one of those familiar homey tables, but all that dissolved when the news broke that he was dead on July 22.
There were so many elements of the news that appalled me. Probably the most unsavory being the way the news was broken by the UK tabloid newspapers whose headline stated that he was Brad Pitt’s friend, based on images of him walking around the Venice Biennale with the famous actor. The implication and central admonishment of the story was that Brad Pitt had dangerous associations. Eventually, several days later the art press and his galleries eventually placed a news release confirming the event. For the first time we learnt the name of the victim, his longtime partner Rebeccah Blum an independent curator. The press reports earlier had told us that she had been stabbed to death by Fletcher in his apartment, who then phoned his daughter to confess and drove his Porsche to a piece of land he owned two hours from Berlin and committed suicide. When faced with such sparse details, how do we fill in the gaps? My imagination dwells heavily on the phone call and how he resolved to end his life and it chooses to avoid the true central tragedy of the story and what her family and friends must be going through.
I remember the words I had written after seeing his show and the urgent need to revise them. Yes there was a tenderness and sensitivity to the images which drew me in, but also a melancholy to them which I attributed to our shared English natures and upbringing in the rich but sometimes bleak landscape which lends itself to a hardy, wintery disposition. There was humor also and a kindness to the work, a caring for the underdog. His show had filled me with hope and optimism, to the extent that I bought a good camera and made my own little book of photographs – somehow it all seemed possible for me after seeing his work. And it was also an insight into how creativity works, there was no question that I was in a visual dialogue with him, trying to win his approval without making it too apparent or producing derivative versions of his work; his final note to me made me very happy. I feel horror about the event, and perhaps also my own error of judgement, but selfishly I’m also in possession of a deep loss, the fact that I will never be a friend to Saul, all I have left is his little drawing he made of Van Gogh and our slight, ephemeral notes on Instagram.