People & Place

Rob Townsend's OCA Learning Log


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 I like the fact that he often used out-of-date film stock as it added interesting unpredictable effects to the resultant photos.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

Summary

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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Film: In No Great Hurry: 13 Lessons in Life with Saul Leiter

I first heard of Saul Leiter when I was studying the Colour section of Art of Photography about a year ago, and I heard about this film “In No Great Hurry: 13 Lessons in Life with Saul Leiter” [1] at about the same time. Sadly, just as I was discovering his work, the great man passed away. He’d reached the grand old age of 89 so he had a fair old crack at life, you must admit. I made a mental note to track the film down, and only came back to this mental note quite recently, I confess!

In No Great Hurry

In No Great Hurry

This 2012 documentary, produced and directed by filmmaker Tomas Leach, is a respectful and fitting tribute to the man. Leiter could have been one of the most famous photographers of his era, and is rightly feted as a pioneer of colour photography. His best work is street photography with a lyrical twist, painterly almost to the point of being abstract in some cases.

I have a Saul Leiter book on order, and when it arrives I hope I’ll find time to write more about the photography itself. In the meantime, I guess this post is more about the film, and by extension about Leiter the person as well as the photographer. It’s not so odd to watch a documentary about a photographer and get some interesting insights from the segments between the photographs shown – you can (within the constraints of the editing process…) get a good feel for the person, how they think, how they act, how they see the world.

They’re not really ‘lessons in life’ at all, it’s a thin construct around which to hang an interview that took place over a period of time when the ageing but still sparky Leiter was sorting through a very messy apartment that housed his photographic archive. The photos he found only occasionally enter the narrative – for the most part it’s simply a gently-paced character portrait. He was a very friendly, peaceful, softly-spoken and most of all modest man. Modest to a fault – he could have, if he wished, been much more well-known than he was. He was very content to be ‘uncelebrated’ for most of his life. Not that he was truly ‘undiscovered’ in Vivian Maier style – he did commercial work in the 1950s, including Harpers and Esquire. But he chose not to pursue the fame and fortune.

He comes across as dismissive of the attention he received at the very end of his life, but you get little glimpses that he secretly enjoyed it – his face when Leach plays back some rough footage says as much.

So what did I learn, from a photographic point of view? That being a painter as well as a photographer gives you a different view on the world; that more subjects suit the vertical format than I thought (he shot almost exclusively in portrait ratio, something I subsequently found he has in common with Ralph Gibson); and that you can find abstract beauty in the most unexpected places.

My favourite quote of the whole film:

“My photographs are meant to tickle your left ear. Very lightly.”

(I think I actually know what he meant, too)

  1. http://watch.innogreathurry.com (accessed 06/10/2014)


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People unaware: photographers roundup

Before starting on People & Place, my first OCA photography course was Art of Photography. During my time on that course I looked at a number of photographers whose work I admired, mainly in the form of exhibition and book reviews. I’ve been looking back on my notes and blog posts from the time and revisiting some of the work in the context of my ongoing People & Place learning, as it became apparent that a lot of the photographers I’d admired over the last year or so are relevant to this section of the course. So here I’ve noted what I’ve picked up from some of them by revisiting them in context of this course.

Vivian Maier

The unique aspect of Maier’s body of work is of course that it lay undiscovered until after her death. Never seen, her work remained un-critiqued in her lifetime and so whatever changes are evident in her style and subject matter is down to her own decisions. Although she dabbled in posed portraits and people-less urban photography, the majority of her released work is classic candid street photography.

One very practical lesson I took from Maier was the way she shot (down to her choice of equipment)… she used a Rollei twin-lens reflex camera, chest-mounted and with a top-down viewing screen. This allowed her to shoot relatively unnoticed, as she wasn’t lifting a camera to her eye. The 21st century equivalent is the digital camera with an articulated screen – which is exactly what I used to get the vast majority of images on People Unaware. Coupled with a remote shutter release, it allowed me to compose on the screen and shoot without drawing attention to myself.

Tony Ray-Jones

I came across Ray-Jones for the first time as part of the double-header ‘Only in England’ exhibition with Martin Parr at the Media Space in London, featuring images from his ‘A Day Off’ series based on the English at leisure, mostly at seaside resorts (so a spiritual predecessor to Parr’s The Last Resort!).

What I like about Ray-Jones’ work is its humour; he was great at picking out quirky details and catching facial expressions. He was also gifted in composition, not easy in candid photography, getting the right elements in the frame to tell a self-contained narrative. While I couldn’t emulate this in my assignment, one thing I did take on board was to choose as subjects people doing something enjoyable – much ‘classic’ street photography often focuses on sadder, seedier (or maybe just neutral/non-emotive) moments, and what I saw in Ray-Jones’ work was a warmth and an empathy that came across well in the pictures. He’s testament to a theory that I really subscribe to, that you make a connection with some photographers because you appreciate the way they see the world – the pictures themselves are merely the physical evidence of what you like about them.

Martin Parr

The early Parr work that I saw as part of the above double-bill wasn’t in his signature style; it was more Ray-Jones influenced in its aesthetic and approach. What I’m talking about here is the more recognisable Parr style, in particular his seminal ‘The Last Resort’ project. He opened up a whole world of public photography – not really street photography, that name doesn’t seem to fit – by choosing garish colour over moody black and white, and working-class seaside resorts over mean city streets.

I wouldn’t want to emulate his way of working – for a start I’m much too unassuming to shoot with flash in daylight – but one thing I did take from Parr is that colour can work just as well for people unaware photography as black-and-white. In the assignment I started thinking that the subject matter lent itself well to black-and-white, but on seeing the contact sheets from the first couple of shoots, totally switched that round. The colours on display seemed to me to be an important part of capturing the images.

I guess a similar inspiration on the use of colour was my appreciation for the work of Saul Leiter.

Others

I’ve looked again at the work of number of other photographers in the last couple of months, and without identifying such specific points of inspiration as noted above, what I have been doing is looking at their work with a slightly different eye, if that makes sense. I’ve been mentally putting myself in their shoes and behind their viewfinders… looking at the resultant pictures and thinking: what attracted them to this image? what was going through their mind? why did they choose this moment? what’s the message/story…?

The names that spring to mind here are Robert Frank, Humphrey Spender (of the Mass Observation project), W. Eugene Smith, Lisette Model and of course Henri Cartier-Bresson.

One of the pleasant surprises about studying photography is how you can go back to pictures you’ve seen before and enjoy them anew, seeing different aspects and finding new depths. I’ve certainly felt this during the last couple of months on People Unaware.