Inspired by the work of William Eggleston (see my blog entry here), I started exploring other photographers of a similar time period (more or less) also working in colour and came across the name of Saul Leiter at the Photographer’s Gallery. Subsequently, I bought the book by Martin Harrison titled Saul Leiter: Early Color.
According to the Wikipedia entry, Saul Leiter (1923 – 2013) was born in Pittsburg and later moved to New York to pursue his interest in painting. W. Eugene Smith encouraged Leiter to pursue photography and after a time working with both monochrome and colour, he began associating with other contemporary photographers such as Robert Frank and Diane Arbus.
He worked as a fashion photographer for 20 years and was published in all of the high-end magazines of the time such as Elle, British Vogue and later, Harper’s Bazaar.
The book Early Color contains photos from 1948 to 1960. It’s quite clear that Leiter was a very early user of Kodachrome colour slide film, some considerable time before William Eggleston and Shephen Shore. In an interview with Dean Brierly (2009), Leiter responds to a question about his use of colour by saying “I never felt the need to do what everyone else did. And I wasn’t troubled by the fact that other people were doing other things”.
The introduction by Martin Harrison states that it was partly for financial reasons that Leiter’s first photos were in black and white, but also because he was afraid of the responsibilities linked to the use of colour. Harrison writes that “although his worries were probably more technical than aesthetic, Leiter’s position was clearly opposed to that of Roland Barthes who felt that the truth lay in black and white.
The introduction by Martin Harrison states that “confronted with the density of reality, he [Leiter] used a wide range of strategies – oblique framing, complex intersections, ambivalent reflections – to distil an urban poetry by turns tender, incisive or poignant”.
The photos are of street scenes, but very often they are simply beautiful. In the Brierly interview, Leiter put it like this:
“It’s quite possible that my work represents a search for beauty in the most prosaic and ordinary places. One doesn’t have to be in some faraway dreamland in order to find beauty. I realize that the search for beauty is not highly popular these days. Agony, misery and wretchedness, now these are worth perusing. ” (Brierly 2009)
Images such as Café Paris, 1959 (middle, above) have a very strong painterly quality about them with a lovely luminescence. Others are much more abstract, such as Walk with Soames, 1958 (I believe that Soames was the name of his dog).
A classic Leiter device is to include a window in the shot, but in different ways. The window might be cutting the frame in two (as in Walk with Soames, 1958) , so that there’s a reflection, or perhaps the shot is through the window, preferably with rain drops as in Snow, 1960 to the left (one of my favourites), a print of which I was lucky enough to see at Paris Photo 2016. These recurring patterns are in no way boring, because there is enough variation, but after spending some time with the book, they became clear.
Leiter for certain had his own street aesthetic which was very different to his contemporaries, even putting aside the use of colour. According to Harrison (2015), “although he never stopped painting, his camera was never going to stop accompanying him – like an extension of his arm and his spirit”.
Brierly, Dean (2009), Saul Leiter: The Quiet Iconoclast [Interview] At: http://photographyinterviews.blogspot.com.au/2009/04/saul-leiter-quiet-iconoclast-saul.html (Accessed 16 Nov 2016)
Harrison, Martin (2015), Saul Leiter: Early Color. Göttingen: Steidl