This post is a companion piece to my review of the Saul Leiter documentary I saw a week or so ago, as it inspired me to get a decent book of his work so that I could find out out a bit more about his style. I got the simply-titled ‘Saul Leiter’  book which is a combination of photos, paintings and essays on the great but publicity-shy man.
Whereas the film was a great portrait of Leiter the man – immensely talented, ramshackle and charming yet very self-effacing, humble to a fault – the book digs a little deeper and analyses both his work and his influences.
Leiter as pioneer
My first response to seeing Leiter’s work a year or so ago was that he was a master of using colour. The book illuminates his place in art history somewhat, as conventional wisdom until about 20 years ago had that colour photography as art really took off at the turn of the 1970s with William Eggleston and Stephen Shore. Yet in the 1990s Leiter unearthed a vast collection of his previously unseen work going four decades, using colour as primary element and subsequently rewriting the history of colour in art photography. He denies he was a pioneer, of course, as it doesn’t fit with his ‘aw-shucks-me?’ humble demeanour. The fact that he was overlooked for so long means that he was very much an unsung pioneer, so one can hardly accuse those that came later as jumping on a bandwagon… but it’s interesting in retrospect to learn that these colour techniques weren’t new to everyone by 1970…
What others saw as the limitations of colour film of the day – slower, softer, less precise than black/white – were the aspects that he embraced and turned to his advantage. It allowed his work to be more impressionistic, more experimental, tending towards the abstract and not obsessing about technical perfection. I like the fact that he often used out-of-date film stock as it added interesting unpredictable effects to the resultant photos.
A painter with a camera
Beyond the obvious predominance of colour, dig a little deeper and you realise that Leiter’s style wasn’t simply down to the fact that that he liked to shoot nice colours. Rather, his work demonstrates the depth of knowledge in, and undoubted influence of, much more traditional forms of visual arts, especially painting. Indeed, he painted alongside his photography work for most of his life. He even merged the two disciplines in his over-paintings of photographic prints. He wasn’t just a practitioner of these more traditional arts, he was a (self-taught) lifelong student of artists. With the help of the critical essays in the book (as my own knowledge of traditional art history is somewhat limited) it becomes easier to see how his work is informed variously by Vermeer, Degas and Rothko in his mastery of colour palettes, abstract expressionism in his compositions and even cubism is the graphical structure of some of his fashion work using mirrors to create fragmented images. Put simply, his work is what you get when you give a painter a camera and he sees it as another kind of brush.
Reading the essays, three adjectives stand out, recurring as motifs throughout the analysis: painterly, lyrical, poetic. While the first one of these is visually quite evident, it’s interesting that Leiter’s images are also compared to musical lyrics or poetry, but I understand what they mean. He had the gift of being able to tame photography to elicit a mood, a state of mind, an almost dream-like quality that is quite different to his contemporaries of the New York School, who were all about black/white documentary style, showing real life on the streets. Leiter used his camera on these same streets to produce something much more subtle and non-specific than capturing ‘things happening’. One quote in the book that stood out for me was from Ingo Tabhorn, describing Leiter’s best images as “[having] a non-linear and non-narrative structure that conveys a sound to be heard all around rather than a story.”
What and how he shot
Outside of a foray into fashion magazine work for a little while (bringing his own style to the genre) his body of work is predominantly US city street scenes, mainly New York, and much of it within a few blocks of his home. He had the kind of eye that could see beauty everywhere. He used recurring visual motifs that clearly fascinated him: umbrellas, hats, steamed-up windows, rain, mist, snow, people in cars, trucks, buses, people in reflections – always some veil or barrier between the camera and the subject. Even in his fashion work he had a fascination with concealing his subjects’ faces – maybe he was self-conscious about shooting people head-on? Or he liked the mysterious aspect of the end result.
I went through the photos in the book quickly writing down short notes per image. The recurring words that came to mind were:
geometry – contrast – colour block – shape – simplicity – framing – secondary point of interest – impressionistic – mist – reflection – unusual focus – sense of mystery – abstract
This is quite an intriguing set of words bearing in mind that they are virtually all street scenes. It’s hard to think of another photographer who could have woven a comparable set images from the same material.
My respect for the man and his work have only increased as I find out more about him and see more of his output. I’ve said this before about other photographers that I admire, but it bears repeating as it most definitely applies to Leiter: I like the way he saw the world.
Without wishing to be derivative, there are some key aspects of Leiter’s work that I can see working as elements of my own developing style: his compositional (geometrical) decisions are impeccable; his confidence in using swathes of colour as a primary component of the image; his use of windows, reflections and other types of ‘veil’ that the viewer/camera sees through – these are all techniques that fascinate me.
- Taubhorn, I and Woischnik, B. (2012). Saul Leiter. Hamburg: Kehrer Verlag