Some people say that photography is easy, that anyone can do it. You just have to have a camera and the ability to press the shutter. It seems that many photographers use the “spray and pray” method, hoping that if they click enough times they will capture something interesting and worthwhile. To me, that simply isn’t photography, at least it’s not what I would consider to be the art of photography. Producing photography that goes beyond snapshots into the realm of art is a skill. It takes a gifted person to be able to see elements such as color, shape, and composition all come together for that one perfect moment. As a photographer, especially a street photographer, you have to be able to anticipate the elements in your head, watch them come together in front of you, then take action. There isn’t time to think about what colors you want to use or what shapes or angles. You have to use what is right there in front of you and make it work. Knowing that moment and being able to take advantage of it is a gift and Saul Leiter has it.
I was not familiar with Saul Leiter before hearing Jeffery and Bill Wadman talk about him on an episode of On Taking Pictures. Because they were raving about him, I looked him up while I listened. After seeing the first image, I was hooked. His photographs are true works of art. Using a simple 35mm camera and Kodachrome film (sometimes expired just to see what the effect would be), Leiter creates images that are almost like paintings. There is one particular photograph, of two postmen crossing the street in the snow that looks like a Rockwell. Others bring to mind artists like Mark Rothko and Pierre Bonnard, where the abstraction of color becomes the subject of the piece.
Saul Leiter was born in 1923 in Philadelphia to strict Orthodox parents. He studied to become a rabbi, but had always had an affinity to art. At the age of 23, he decided to drop out of theology school and follow his passion. He left his parents’ home at midnight and took a bus to New York City to become an artist. It was there where he met the Abstract Expressionist painter Richard Pousette-Dart and photographer W. Eugene Smith. They were the ones who encouraged him to pursue photography. Although he loved to paint (and still does), he found the camera to be a way to explore the city and see things in a new way, to find a sense of solitude in the midst of the hustle and bustle.
With the help of his friends, he soon became a respected fashion photographer, shooting for magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue. His first love, however, was street photography. He says, “I started out as a fashion photographer. One cannot say that I was successful, but there was enough work to keep me busy. I collaborated with Harper’s Bazaar and other magazines. I had work and I made a living. At the same time, I took my own photographs.” He had a few opportunities to become not only a well-known photographer, but also an artist. His artwork was exhibited alongside Willem de Kooning and Philip Guston. Edward Steichen exhibited some of his black and white photography at the Museum of Modern Art in 1953. He also became good friends with Robert Frank and Diane Arbus. Rather than take advantage of those things, he chose to stay out of the spotlight. “In order to build a career and to be successful,” Leiter says,“One has to be determined. One has to be ambitious. I much prefer to drink coffee, listen to music and to paint when I feel like it… Maybe I was irresponsible. But part of the pleasure of being alive is that I didn’t take everything as seriously as one should.”
For the most part, his photography was not shown to the public or even his friends. He kept most of his color slides tucked away in boxes. This is where they stayed until the 1990s when he pulled them out and decided to have some prints made. Since then, his work has received quite a bit of critical acclaim. He has had many gallery exhibitions and in the past several years, several books of his work have been published, with another set to come out in August. This year, filmmaker Tomas Leach will also be releasing a documentary called In No Great Hurry about Leiter’s life and his work. When asked about his new-found fame, he seems a bit taken back. It has been unexpected and he says, “I am not immersed in self-admiration. When I am listening to Vivaldi or Japanese music or making spaghetti at three in the morning and realize that I don’t have the proper sauce for it, fame is of no use. The other way to put it is that I don’t have a talent for narcissism. Or, to put it yet another way, the mirror is not my best friend.”
A very humble man, who does what he does simply because he loves it; Leiter finds beauty in the ordinary. “I never thought of the urban environment as isolating,” he says. “I leave these speculations to others. It’s quite possible that my work represents a search for beauty in the most prosaic and ordinary places. One doesn’t have to be in some faraway dreamland in order to find beauty.” Leiter doesn’t seem to regret having spent years without notoriety and fame, saying “I spent a great deal of my life being ignored. I was always very happy that way. Being ignored is a great privilege.” This anonymity gave him the ability to grow and do the work he wanted to do without the pressure of having to perform or to keep producing. His work became what he wanted it to become.
Sure, Leiter’s photographs are from a different age; Kodachrome is gone and the people in Brooklyn don’t look like that anymore. But I think, even if we somehow had access to a time machine, we would still find that Saul Leiter’s eye is unique. His gift is being able to see beyond reflections, through doors and car windows, through the rain and snow, to find the perfect composition amidst multiple potential subjects in a split second. The wonderful balance of art and technique that something that very few can even imitate, let alone perfect. Leiter’s work reinforces that photographs are important in that they are able elevate us, not only in the making of them, but also in the viewing. Photographs, good photographs, can take us beyond merely witnessing a place or an event, they connect us all in a common visual language.
If looking at Saul Leiter’s photographs have inspired you, take 15 minutes or so and watch this talk/interview he gave in February of this year in Hamburg, Germany. Brilliant.
BOOKS: Saul Leiter