People & Place

Rob Townsend's OCA Learning Log


Photographer: Saul Leiter

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’ [1] 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

Taxi, 1957 © Saul Leiter

Taxi, 1957 © Saul Leiter

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 I like the fact that he often used out-of-date film stock as it added interesting unpredictable effects to the resultant photos.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

Snow, 1960 © Saul Leiter

Snow, 1960 © Saul Leiter

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.

  1. Taubhorn, I and Woischnik, B. (2012). Saul Leiter. Hamburg: Kehrer Verlag

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Sandro Miller’s “Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich”

Homage to Diane Arbus, Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey (1967), © Sandro Miller 2014

Homage to Diane Arbus, Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey (1967), © Sandro Miller 2014

Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich: Homage to Photographic Masters

This has been doing the rounds online for the last couple days, and rightly so. The photographer Sandro Miller has collaborated with his friend, actor John Malkovich, to produce a series of homages to photographs that influenced or otherwise impressed him – all lovingly and accurately recreated with Malkovich as the subject.

And it’s awesome. Playful, respectful, technically admirable, joyful, surprising – it’s just damn near perfect.

I hope it’s acceptable to reproduce one of the images here – to see the rest you should go to the gallery’s own site.

My favourite photo project, ever

I know I only saw it two days ago but every time I see a link – no, every time I even think about it now – it makes me smile. It’s already my favourite photo project. (I choose my words carefully: I don’t say “the best” or anything trying to sound authoritative; I’m singly expressing my personal opinion, and no-one can tell me it’s not my favourite…)

There are a lot of photo projects that I appreciate, I admire. Robert Frank’s The Americans, Martin Parr’s The Last Resort, Tony Ray-Jones’ A Day Off, more recent works by young and contemporary photographers such as Robin Maddock’s III, Mark Neville’s Deeds Not Words – these are all great works for many different reasons, and I consider them all part of my photographic education and inspiration.

But this is the first photo project that I can honestly say that I love. Like you love a great novel or a classic album.

What’s so great about it? Lots of things. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.

It’s a project

I love a good photo project; whilst overall I guess my favourite photographer is Elliott Erwitt, I don’t consider that he does projects per se, he shoots what he likes the look of and then curates into collections after the fact. This is cool, I love his stuff, I love the way he sees the world. But a big part of what I like in photography is the tenacity and focus of a project. There’s something I like about the creative mind deciding to do something that hasn’t been done before and painstakingly working within whatever constraints they’ve set themselves to realise their vision. Maybe the fact that I work in project management as my day job has something to do with this? I personally like to have a coherent focus for a body of work (whether a degree assignment or a personal project), and increasingly see this as something I admire in others.

And I particularly love a simple concept, done brilliantly. Which this is.

It’s inherently about photography

I reckon photo geeks must be magnetically attracted to this project – this is unashamedly photographers’ photography. It’s the equivalent of a fantastic covers album. Recognising the works, seeing Miller’s obvious love and respect for his influences coming through – it’s the rare collection that I look at and think “I wish I had done that!“. Also, I’m currently in the thinking phase of my next degree assignment, and I’m working on it being a portrait series of some sort. This has sparked some inspiration. Indirectly, but inspiration nonetheless.

So I love it cos I’m a photo geek.

It’s technically excellent

Follow-on from above point. Now, I don’t normally obsess over technical quality in photos, I prefer the emotion/message/intent/vision to come across, that’s what makes a great image. As Ansel Adams apparently said: “There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.”… but in this case, where recreation is the whole point, one can’t help but be impressed by the mastery of his art that Miller shows here. He’s like a master art forger! His attention to detail – in lighting, in props, in composition, in colouring – is superb throughout. At first glance at a few of the images I thought the whole thing was a Photoshop stunt (maybe done without Malkovich’s consent!?) but once I read the accompanying story I realised the work that had gone into this – from both of them – and was suitably blown away.

It’s just very satisfying to see someone who has mastered their craft (as long as they apply it to concepts that are interesting).

It’s John Malkovich!

I can’t imagine this whole thing working with anyone else. I’m a massive fan of the film Being John Malkovich, and the very premise (and title) of the collection clearly harks back to that insane film. I love that Charlie Kaufman wrote such a crazy story, I love that Spike Jonze brought it to the screen, but most of all I love that Malkovich starred in the thing! Prior to that film I saw him as a brilliant but very serious ac-TOR and his willingness to play around with notions of his own identity in that film was thrilling to watch. It seems to be with the same spirit that he threw himself into this project.

Add to this that he’s such a great actor that he can bring his skills to these unmoving images – his Einstein, his Dali and his Monroe (!) are exceptionally good as visual impressions, not because he particularly resembles them, but because he somehow manages to embody them.

It looks like it was a ton of fun to shoot

OK, I’m guessing here but it doesn’t look like it was a laborious, grumpy experience for either of them – they look like they were having a ball. The fun is kind of infectious. It’s just so… I keep coming back to the word playful. So many photo projects are very po-faced. This is like a breath of fresh air.

So there we have it. My favourite photo project. I just hope they bring out a book.


Exhibition: Steve McCurry Retrospective

The Théatre de la Photographie et de l’Image in Nice is running an exhibition of Steve McCurry’s work until the end of September 2014, and I was fortunate to be in Nice at the right time to visit.

Like most people I knew McCurry first and foremost for the iconic ‘Afghan Girl’ image, so famous that I don’t need to include it here. Beyond that, I knew he had worked a lot in Asia and in war zones throughout the world – but I didn’t know much else. It turned out to be one of the best exhibitions of photography that I’ve seen in a long time. Given that I am studying a degree module called ‘People & Place’, his work is hugely relevant and an excellent source of inspiration.


Pul-e-Khumri, Afghanistan © Steve McCurry / Magnum Photos

Pul-e-Khumri, Afghanistan © Steve McCurry / Magnum Photos

At the heart of McCurry’s work are people, and the first hall in the gallery is dominated by head-and-shoulders shots that are reminiscent of Afghan Girl, with the subject staring deep into the viewer’s eyes. The technique of getting the subject to stare intently at the lens looks deceptively simple, but I can’t imagine that every time you do so, you produce work as powerful and affecting as this. Whether through empathy, patience or some other interpersonal skill, McCurry has the knack of drawing the gaze of his subjects in such a way that you feel they are revealing something of themselves to the camera/viewer.

Pure portraiture isn’t the whole story though – in fact it’s a fairly small proportion of the 127 images on show here. The greater part of the body of work is concerned with placing people in the wider context of their place in the world – their community, their traditions and sometimes the extraordinary circumstances in which they find themselves.

For me, some of these are more interesting than others. The images of war zones – and they are not overly graphic, they are not scenes of combat but rather of the effects of war on the people and their environment – were surprisingly less affecting to me than I expected. Similarly, the images of the aftermath of natural disasters didn’t really resonate with me. This is a subjective view, of course, but a certain amount of ‘disaster fatigue’ kicks in after a while and as a viewer I became somewhat desensitised.

On the other hand, the images depicting specific traditions of peoples from around the world, I found genuinely impressive. The ones chosen here really lend themselves to being captured photographically, from a point of view of colour, composition or both. The Indian festivals where they paint their faces and bodies bright colours, the Shaolin monks hanging upside down, the Sri Lankan stilt fishermen – they make amazing photographs. They make you think about the wonders the world has to offer, the unusual rituals and sights that most people will never see in person – the variety of human life. Put cynically from a visual interest point of view: misery tends to look the same the world over, but people find a limitless number of ways to celebrate and be happy.

A sense of place

I was particularly interested in seeing how McCurry conjured up the sense of place in his images, as this is the brief for my next assignment. For the most part he does this with people in the context of the place – sometimes posed environmental portraits, often candid moments. The light, the architecture, the clothing, the landscapes. After a while, looking at photos before reading the captions, I became pretty good at guessing where in the world the picture was taken, and this is testament to his ability to distill a place down to its essence. With regard to the balance between people and place in his images, on the evidence of the work here he concentrates very much on the people, with the place as a secondary character.

One of the best examples of this, as well as demonstrating his love of vibrant colours and his eye for composition, is ‘Boy in Mid-Flight, Jodhpur, India’.

Boy in Mid-Flight, Jodhpur, India. 2007 © Steve McCurry / Magnum Photos

Boy in Mid-Flight, Jodhpur, India. 2007 © Steve McCurry / Magnum Photos


My overwhelming first impression was that I was in the presence of a photographic master, the kind of annoyingly brilliant genius that makes me disappointed in my own shortcomings! Once I got past the general sense of awe I looked more closely and saw that what I really admired were two quite distinct aspects of his work: first, on a purely aesthetic level he captures some beautiful images, full of colour and with a careful eye for composition; secondly, he has a rare skill of highlighting the human elements, making you feel like the subject has shared something of themselves with the photographer, and by extension, the viewer.

One simple sign that I’ve been impressed with a photographer is whether I subsequently seek out more of their work. Straight after getting back from the exhibition I ordered ‘Steve McCurry: The Iconic Photographs’ [1], which seems to be a comprehensive source of more great McCurry images to feast upon after having this show whet my appetite.

One of the things I find myself thinking with regard to certain photographers is “I like the way s/he sees the world”… and with McCurry the emphasis is more on the last word. He brings to life amazing, exotic aspects of global culture, opening windows onto parts of the world I’ll most likely never see in person. If anything, the fact that he is so associated with one iconic image is something of a shame – it overshadows what is a consistently excellent body of work.

  1. Purcell, K.W. (2012). Steve McCurry: the iconic photographs. London: Phaidon