Raj Lalwani slowly unravels the languid poetry that touches the surface of a Saul Leiter photograph, in no great hurry.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
This article originally appeared in the July 2016 issue of Better Photography.Tags: Raj Lalwani, better photography, Commercial Photography, photography, fashion, Saul Leiter, Anniversary Issue Vol 2, Fashion Stories, Main Story, modelling