Saul Leiter - the poetic flâneur

"I DON'T HAVE A PHILOSOPHY, I HAVE A CAMERA"

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I became familiar with Saul Leiter’s work in 2016 at a wonderful exhibition in the Photographers’ Gallery in London. It showed not only his black and white early work and his colour photographs, but also his sketchbooks.  The pictures he took in the early 2010’s (he died 2013) were in the same style as those he took in the 1950’s. He searched his whole life for beauty, believing in it and that everything is worthy of a photograph. In his early career most of his photographs were in black and white, but he quickly moved over to colour and became a master of it. His fame came late in his life (in his 80’s) and he was perfectly comfortable with that, never seeking fame or glory, an unusual attitude today. He just went about his life photographing with passion and developing his own style, ‘in no great hurry” as he would love saying. Today he is a major influence not only on photographers but also in cinema. The film “Carol” owes much of its colour and camera angles to Leiter.

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He was born in Pittsburgh but is best known for his photographs of New York City, the more famous ones today taken in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Leiter originally came to NYC to be a painter and there is a painterly feel to his colour photographs. He made his money with fashion assignments (mainly Elle and Esquire) and he was quite reluctant to show his street photographs believing that they did not offer anything new or noteworthy for a long time. But they did and still do today. Leiter believed that “photographs are often treated as important moments, but really they are little fragments and souvenirs of an unfinished world”. There is a real sense of stolen moments in his photographs with their emphasis often on small parts (eg the sole of a shoe, a street lamp), fragments of life which will show more about our world than sweeping views. “If we look and look, we begin to see and are still left with the pleasure of uncertainty” – this view of the world is constantly echoed in his photographs with their muted colours and reflections, their abstract views, painterly feel and quirky framing.

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Today there are many books on Saul Leiter available, with some of them such as “Early Color” published in 2006 already a collectible item in first edition. There are a number of videos which you can easily find on YouTube about Saul Leiter’s work, but I would particularly recommend  the film “In No Great Hurry”: perfect for a rainy Sunday afternoon spent in the company of the inspiring Saul Leiter.