Saul Leiter

 

Raj Lalwani slowly unravels the languid poetry that touches the surface of a Saul Leiter photograph, in no great hurry.

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Photograph / Saul Leiter Foundation

Writing on the work of Saul Leiter is a matter of great trepidation that I must cautiously tread on, with an apology. One of photography’s greatest ever practitioners, Saul was often wary of conversations that spoke of why he does what he does. Instead of describing his practice, he would rather practise. Instead of responding to questions about his picturemaking, he preferred to respond to the urge of making the picture.

“I don’t have a philosophy. I have a camera.”

While much of Leiter’s poetry is in his use of colour, it’s equally fascinating to see the calm delicacy that highlights his work in black and white. Photograph / Saul Leiter

While much of Leiter’s poetry is in his use of colour, it’s equally fascinating to see the calm delicacy that highlights his work in black and white. Photograph / Saul Leiter Foundation

But his propensity of being away from the conversations, in the quietude of his delicate everyday, meant that it was only in 2006, after the publication of a colour monograph titled Early Color, that the world took notice of his work, eventually leading to a reevaluation of the history of colour photography.

Photograph / Saul Leiter

Photograph / Saul Leiter Foundation

Today, almost three years after his passing, there are so many unopened boxes, so many paintings, photos and painted-on photos left to be discovered, that one needs to realise that we are talking about one of the most prolific artists of the last century. And that his prolificity has only one reason behind it, plain old honest love. Fashion, of course, is just another surprise up his sleeve.

Saul Leiter grew up in a stringently Jewish Pittsburgh household, a place he fled from at the age of 23, when he boarded a bus to New York. He was running away from his father, who was an orthodox Rabbi and was pained by his son’s decision to pursue an artistic vocation. A Lower East Side apartment became his home, and the city, his part-time lover.

Whether it’s water, glass or even a door frame, a majority of Saul’s work presents an obstruction between the lens and the subject. In the process, the confrontation is subdued, eased off, and the picture becomes much about looking. Photograph / Saul Leiter

Whether it’s water, glass or even a door frame, a majority of Saul’s work presents an obstruction between the lens and the subject. In the process, the confrontation is subdued, eased off, and the picture becomes much about looking. Photograph / Saul Leiter Foundation

Part-time Lover, Full-time Muse

It is actually quite remarkable that an overwhelming amount of Saul’s lifetime’s work, has all been shot in a mere handful of blocks. Constancy has been his only constant, having stayed in the same home for six decades, photographing in a six-block radius. He once admitted, “Even though I have lived in New York all my life, I can’t say that I know New York.

Drama is never the premise of a Leiter picture. Instead, it’s a fade, a sense that nothing’s really happening, and that’s the way it should be. Photograph / Saul Leiter

Drama is never the premise of a Leiter picture. Instead, it’s a fade, a sense that nothing’s really happening, and that’s the way it should be. Photograph / Saul Leiter Foundation

Occasionally, when someone stops me and asks for directions, I tell them I don’t live here!” Of course, it is this very neighbourhood where a majority of his iconic fashion photos were made, mostly for the pages of Esquire andHarper’s Bazaar, where he shot innumerable covers and magazine spreads, alongside other fashion photography stalwarts like Richard Avedon and Hiro.

While the moody nature of his colour imagery comes from the painterly manner in which colour has been used, with black and white, it is posture and tension that portray the contemplation. Photograph / Saul Leiter

While the moody nature of his colour imagery comes from the painterly manner in which colour has been used, with black and white, it is posture and tension that portray the contemplation. Photograph / Saul Leiter Foundation

But to look at his commercial explorations in fashion, we need to simultaneously look at his personal work. The ballet of the street was what bound these two journeys together, the intermingling of which, left behind some of fashion’s most silent and intensely personal imagery.

It’s exciting to see the various visual leitmotifs that he keeps finding in his street work, and then analyse how often he deliberately uses them on commissioned shoots. Photograph / Saul Leiter

It’s exciting to see the various visual leitmotifs that he keeps finding in his street work, and then analyse how often he deliberately uses them on commissioned shoots. Photograph / Saul Leiter Foundation

With Clarity of Confusion

It was a chance encounter with expired Kodachrome that led to the hue that is now recognised as his characteristic palette…intensely warm colours with oddly faded tones. Colour was, at that time, looked at with horror, antithetical to a serious artistic practice, only adorning the editorial and commercial spaces of photographers such as Blumenfeld. But Saul chose colour to imagine a reverie. Unlike contemporaries like Winogrand and Klein, his street photos tease, but don’t tell.

There is no decisive moment, just a series of moments and a collection of undecided possibilities. Largely shot using telephoto lenses, mirrors and windows tend to be the recurring motifs in these photographs bordering on abstraction. Several planes come together to obscure what would otherwise seem to be the main subject of the photograph.

Photograph / Saul Leiter

Photograph / Saul Leiter Foundation

Depth of field tends to be shallow, often outrageously so, something that we see paralleled in his fashion work. “I liked different lenses for different times. I am fond of the telephoto lens, as I am of the normal 50mm lens. I had, at one point, a 150mm lens and I was very fond of it. I liked what it did. I experimented a lot. Sometimes I worked with a lens that I had, when I might have preferred another lens. I think Picasso once said that he wanted to use green in a painting, but since he didn’t have it, he used red,” he laughed, “Perfection is not something I admire. A touch of confusion is a desirable ingredient.”

Photograph / Saul Leiter

Photograph / Saul Leiter Foundation

Saul Leiter’s visual ruminations are like a series of enquiries, questions asked by the picture, and ones asked by those who view it. What are we looking at? Why are we looking at it? What do we see when we see beyond what we’re looking at? You sense it, but yearn for a glimpse. Bit by bit, window by window, we are looking at a world of dreamy nostalgia, where an otherwise monotonous urbanscape transforms into a mirage of memories.

Bold use of negative space, facelessness and even out-of-focus blurs, the images on this spread and the previous one, show how his fashion imagery was incredibly bold and avantgarde, whilst nurturing a conventional meaning of beauty. Photograph / Saul Leiter

Bold use of negative space, facelessness and even out-of-focus blurs, the images on this spread and the previous one, show how his fashion imagery was incredibly bold and avant garde, whilst nurturing a conventional meaning of beauty. Photograph / Saul Leiter Foundation

He never really described his urban environment in words, despite the fact that his multi-layered compositions with bizarre reflections and partially visible passersby have been the subject of interpretation for a large number of people. Saul, in response, would steer the conversation from his subject matter to his practice itself, and say, “It’s quite possible that my work represents a search for beauty in the most prosaic and ordinary places.

Soames Bantry, the model turned painter pictured here, was Saul’s longtime friend, muse and lover. She was the subject in many a Leiter frame, including the impressionistic rainstruck Walk with Soames, one of his most famous pictures. Photograph / Saul Leiter

Soames Bantry, the model turned painter pictured here, was Saul’s longtime friend, muse and lover. She was the subject in many a Leiter frame, including the impressionistic rainstruck Walk with Soames, one of his most famous pictures. Photograph / Saul Leiter Foundation

One doesn’t have to be in some faraway dreamland in order to find beauty.” Whether it’s in his colour work, or his delicately composed black and whites, one senses that what he refers to as beauty, is simply an innate interest in the tiniest of things around him, from a drop of water and light shining through it, to a tender gesture, that complements his tender use of light. Like all great romances though, there is no real point in trying to dissect visuality.

“It isn’t always just the photos you take that matter. It is looking at the world and seeing things that you never photograph that could be photographs, if you had the energy to keep taking pictures every second of your life.”

Saul’s fashion work is least about the model, or even the clothes. It’s always colour, mood and atmosphere, and as seen in the picture on the next page, often about the lightness of gesture that can breathe life into an ordinary scene. Photograph / Saul Leiter

Saul’s fashion work is least about the model, or even the clothes. It’s always colour, mood and atmosphere, and as seen in the picture on the next page, often about the lightness of gesture that can breathe life into an ordinary scene. Photograph / Saul Leiter Foundation

When asked to analyse the two-dimensional nature of his compositions, he once said, “Even though I am intelligent, when I am photographing something, I am not thinking of single dimension, triple dimension. I think there’s something, and I take a picture.”

Photograph / Saul Leiter

Photograph / Saul Leiter Foundation

He continued, saying, “I am very suspicious of the analysis of artworks, because the explanations for certain things are not the real reasons for them. There is an element of mystery. Why is Matisse Matisse? Why did Cartier-Bresson have a way of framing a picture? Why are people who are very good very good? And why are there people who are not very good?”

The style of shooting of Saul Leiter (1923–2013), along with that of Diane Arbus and Robert Frank, is now known as the New York School of photography. Relatively unrecognised over the years, the publishing of his book ‘Saul Leiter Early Colour’ in 2006 forced a reevaluation of the history of colour photography.

Tags: Anniversary Issue Vol 2, better photography, Commercial Photography, fashion, Fashion Stories, Main Story, modelling, photography, Raj Lalwani, Saul Leiter