On The Outside Looking In

 

Different Work Requires Different People

In creative businesses we talk a good deal about the value of difference in delivering brand success. We seek to design different brand positionings, different strategies, different executions. We believe difference creates stand-out, preference and loyalty.

But what kind of people invent difference? Where do we find them?

I recently encountered reviews of the life and works of two great American artists, the actor Marlon Brando and the photographer Saul Leiter. Brando and Leiter were born in the early 1920s within a year of each other. One achieved quick and widespread fame; the other earned recognition slowly, and primarily within his own community. But, through the work they did in the ‘40s and ‘50s, they both helped rewrite our understanding of their respective professions.

I found that, though Brando and Leiter shared little in terms of personality and renown, their engagement with difference was similar.

Marlon Brando: The Wild One

‘I’m going to have a special microphone placed in my coffin, so that when I wake up in there, six feet under the ground, I’m going to say: ’Do it differently.’’

Listen to Me Marlon is an excellent 2015 documentary film exploring Marlon Brando’s life and work through his privately recorded audio-tapes. In discussing his early career, there’s a clear sense that Brando from the outset was obsessed with doing things differently, with developing his own unique style.

‘Never let the audience know how it’s going to turn out. Get them on your terms. Hit ‘em. Knock ‘em over with an attitude, with a word, with a look. Be surprising. Figure out a way to do it that has never been done before. You want to stop that movement from the cardboard to the mouth. Get people to stop chewing. The truth will do that. Damn, damn, damn, damn. When it’s right, it’s right. You can feel it in your bones. Then you feel whole. You feel good.’

Although Brando comes across on film as a pillar of strength, a brooding, confident presence, his childhood was far from happy. Both his parents were alcoholics and he had an uneasy relationship with his father. The introverted Brando was sent to a military school in which he felt alone and isolated.

‘I was very shy. Sensitive, very sensitive…. I had a great feeling of inadequacy; that I didn’t know enough; that I didn’t have enough education. I felt dumb.’

Acting saved Brando. And in particular the acting coach Stella Adler saved him.  (Adler was herself a successful actor who, inspired by the Russian theatre director Constantin Stanislavski, founded her own acting studio in New York. Brando was an early pupil.)

‘‘Don’t be afraid,’ she said. ’You have a right to be who you are, where you are and how you are. Everybody’s got a story to tell, something they’re hiding.’’

One can’t help inferring that Brando’s quest for difference was in some way driven by his own sense of marginalisation. Angst ridden, feeling out of the ordinary, he was at the same time fascinated by differences in others.

‘I was always somebody who had an unquenchable curiosity about people. I would walk down the street and look at faces. I used to go into the corner of Broadway and 42nd Street in a cigar store. I would watch people for three seconds as they went by and try to analyse their personalities by just that flick. The face can’t hide many things and people are always hiding things. I was always interested to guess the things that people did not know themselves. What they feel; what they think; why they feel. How is it we behave the way we do?’

What emerges is a picture of an exceptional man whose interior and exterior lives are inextricably linked. Brando’s self-reflection seems to have created his curiosity about others.

‘Unless we look inwards, we will not ever be able to clearly see outwards.’

 

Saul Leiter: The Quiet American

‘It is not where it is or what it is that matters. But how you see it.’

There’s an excellent exhibition of Saul Leiter’s work currently at The Photographers’ Gallery in London (until 3 April). If you’ve seen the splendid film, Carol, you’ll recognise the inspiration for the art direction.

Leiter was certainly different. He was the son of a famous Talmudic scholar and was studying to become a Rabbi when he upped sticks for New York, determined to become a painter. Leiter went on to pioneer colour street photography in an era when colour was not considered a serious medium. And although he was a great admirer of Henri Cartier-Bresson, the master of the ‘decisive moment,’ Leiter had his own distinct perspective on the role of photography in our lives.

‘Photographs are often treated as important moments, but really they are fragments and souvenirs of an unfinished world.’

So Leiter didn’t go out to capture the events and drama of the street. Rather he was drawn to the insignificant and fleeting; to bold colours and abstract shapes. Indeed he bought out-of-date film stock because it was cheap and he liked the distortions and unpredictability that came with it.

Leiter’s work is all hydrants and hats, fire escapes and steamed windows; a red brolly, a yellow headscarf; workers in the snow, commuters on the train; bold commercial type in modest surroundings; reflections in the rain, shadows in the bright sunlight. It’s a gentle set of impressions. Overseen, overlooked.

Leiter’s style may well have been determined by his personality. He was self-deprecating, understated, unassuming. He was a Quiet American.

‘I spent a great deal of my life being ignored. I was always very happy that way. Being ignored is a great privilege. That is how I think I learnt to see what others do not see and to react to situations differently. I simply looked at the world, not really prepared for anything.’

Saul Leiter: Taxi, ca. 1957

So again we see a creative person with a distinct perspective on his art born out of a very particular personality. And again we see an obsession with the observation of others.

‘If we look and look we begin to see and are still left with the pleasure of uncertainty.’


Difference Craves Difference; Difference Creates Difference

What can we conclude from these two leading practitioners in the art of difference?

Firstly they were themselves different. They were on the outside looking in. Their marginalisation gave them an enhanced ability to look and learn, to observe others. Outsiders look harder and see more. And because they are different themselves, they are better equipped to create difference.

The best creative businesses embrace outsiders. They welcome the unorthodox and unusual, the idiosyncratic and individual, the different and diverse. They respect the quiet voice, even when they are daily engaged in loud proclamation. The best creative businesses make outsiders feel like insiders.

And yet, as with any organisation, there are powerful forces of inertia at play. Recruiters fish in the same ponds; leaders appoint in their own image; and company life has a centrifugal force that drives conformity and convention. It abhors rough edges and irregular behaviours. Often we cherish originality, but balk at the eccentricities of original people.

I think the creative industry should more actively embrace the belief that different work requires different people. Diversity should not just be a social responsibility. It should be a strategic imperative.

 ‘I’m on the outside looking in
Gotta find a way, gotta find a way back to your heart dear, once again
Won’t you take me back again?
I’ll be waiting here ‘til then
On the outside looking in.’

Little Anthony & The Imperials/On the Outside (Looking In).
(Teddy Randazzo and Bobby Weinstein)

 

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An abbreviated version of this piece was published in the Guardian Media and Tech on 16 February 2016

No. 71