A while back, I made a bit of noise on Emulsive and via an email to the Sunny 16 Podcast about photographers talking more about photographs, and less about gear. Leading by example, I tried my hand at a book review and tried writing about one of my favourite photographer’s work.
Well, here we are again…
All About Saul Leiter is a retrospective on the American photographer’s work. It was published originally in Japan in 2017, and in the UK earlier this year by Thames and Hudson. It contains more than 200 of his works – including street photographs, images for advertising, nudes and paintings.
In a similar way to Vivian Maier not being discovered until some chancer bought a lock-up full of her negatives, Saul Leiter wasn’t really known until well after the period during which he produced his most recognisable work. While he was well-known as a photographer for Harper’s Bazaar at the turn of the 60s, his non-commercial work made during a similar period was not collected or published until almost 50 years later.
A photographer’s gift to the viewer is sometimes the beauty in the overlooked ordinary.
Leiter died in 2013, just a year after the documentary ‘In No Great Hurry – 13 Lessons in Life’ was released. He was 88 years old when it was recorded and the charming film follows him as he potters around the studio apartment that he’d lived in for the previous sixty years. The place is stacked high with his negatives, prints and paintings and during the film, he picks through them, recalling stories from the time they were shot and offering his unique wisdom on life, celebrity and photography.
Most interesting is his attitude to fame and success. He was shooting colour in the 1950s and as such is considered a ‘pioneer’ of colour – something that seemed to amuse him no end. Off the back of his fashion work, it seems that he could have been as well know as contemporaries like Diane Arbus and Richard Avedon. But instead, he seems to have spent his time lounging naked (more on that later) photographing and painting his friends and lovers, only to tuck away the results throughout his flat.
Leiter was already in his eighties when the first collections of his work were published. In 2006, Early Black and White and Early Colour – I won’t insult you be describing the difference between the two – had begun to generate interest in his work.
All About Saul Leiter came four years after his death and was published to accompany his first exhibitions in Japan; when you see his use of minimalism and blocks of colour, you can understand why he would have such a large following in Japan. The book is broken into sections covering his fashion work, then his street photography, nudes and paintings, many of which were actually painted directly onto the original prints made decades before.
Being a photographer for Harper’s Bazaar and Esquire as the 60’s started swinging must have been pretty special. The models and clothes were unlike anything that people had seen before and photography’s role in bringing this revolution to the world was key – Leiter was right at the forefront of it. While his images are obviously made to feature whatever product was being sold, already you can see that there’s more to them that being strictly commercial. Indeed, while the fashion work is the first section of the book, it’s worth going back to after you’ve read the next section and studied Leiter’s street work. The themes that are recognisable in his most famous photographs are all there in the magazine work and his use of reflections, framing and minimalist composition were just as daring as some of the outfits.
The majority of the photographs collected here could loosely be described as ‘street photography’, but for me, are so much more than just a record of how things looked. Many could be equally be called fine art, minimalism or given any number of other (meaningless) genre classifications. What’s fascinating to keep in mind when looking through them is that Leiter lived almost all of his life in the same neighbourhood, meaning that almost everything in the book that isn’t in that first chapter of commercial work, was made within a few blocks of his apartment.
I take photographs in my neighbourhood.
I think that mysterious things happen in familiar places.
We don’t always need to run to the other end of the world.
Leiter managed to make abstract work that was accessible. His signature move (to me at least) is his method of taking up 80% of the frame with an out of focus object such as an umbrella, a canopy or a steamed up window, and placing the point of interest in the part of the frame that remains. It’s done throughout the book and once you spot the theme, each time it’s repeated brings an admiration of doing something so simple, so magnificently well.
Leiter records fleeting moments that must have taken hours to capture. Often, a figure will appear in that in-focus part of the frame or a reflection will perfectly align in a shop window. If you’ve ever tried anything like this, and I’m sure you have, you’ll know how long it might take to get these perfect alignments. These images must have been set up and then involved an awful lot of waiting…
Colour work from the 1950s (think Fred Herzog famous work from Vancouver) was typically Kodachrome slide film and has a look that many of us still aspire to, particularly in the rendition of reds. Saul Leiter used this to his advantage and many of the images (including the one on the cover) are of almost monochrome, sometimes snow-covered streets with something red (like an umbrella or stop light) perfectly placed in the frame. It’s one of those ‘tricks’ that us (rank) amateur photographers will see and think how easy it appears, and yet executing it so well is the preserve of people like Leiter and the real masters.
During these early years, colour was still looked down upon, seen as ‘superficial or shallow’ and something for the snapshot shooter – art could only be black and white. This book is compelling evidence of the contrary.
I find it strange that anyone would believe that the only thing that matters is black and white. It’s just idiotic. The history of art is the history of colour.
The cave paintings had colour…
Throughout the book are quotes from Leiter; things that he said during the interviews in the documentary film. They’re often funny and nonsensical, but give an idea of the way he thinks and an insight into why perhaps he didn’t achieve stardom when he was still at his peak. He talks about how he tried not to be discovered and avoided any fame or recognition, quite happy just doing what he was doing. It’s a refreshing perspective when held up against today’s TwInstaBook culture of fame at all costs.
Throughout his life Leiter considered himself primarily a painter, and the book collects a few of his works. I’m not expert on photography, and even less-so on painting, so I’ll leave you to make up your own mind on what you’ll remember him for. While I like the paintings where he’s painted acrylic colour over a fifty year old black and white photographic print, his other work leaves me cold.
Towards the end of the book are his black and white nudes. Many of these photographs feature his long-time friend, muse and lover Soames Bantry and seem to be tender, intimate moments. Nude or boudoir photography (I can’t think of a better way to describe it) never looked as good as it does here. Whenever I see contemporary nudes, the model often appears contorted and uncomfortable. In these pictures, Leiter’s subject look like they’ve just woken, are about to sleep, or perhaps have just enjoyed a ‘moment of intimacy’.
Reading monographs and photobooks almost always teaches me something.
I believe that even if you don’t particularly like someone’s work, style or subject matter, you can still learn from a collection of their pictures. Perhaps its how it’s put together, sequenced or the choice of topic. Knowing what you don’t like and what you want to avoid contributes to making your personal vision stronger.
I love Leiter’s work and wholeheartedly recommend this book. The photographs he took don’t look like mine, nor do I aspire to recreate his style (although I do love those reds). Instead, what this book teaches is that a good eye and a few simple, repeated stylistic cues along with a practiced consistency, can result in an output that’s recognisably yours and greater than the sum of its parts.
This piece was originally written for the magnificent Emulsive Film website. Thanks to Em for deeming it worthy of inclusion on his site, but also giving me the motivation to write stuff in the first place.
Special thanks to my assistant Emily in the creation of the pictures of the book.