“There are the things that are out in the open, and there are the things that are hidden,” muses Saul Leiter in the documentary on his life and work, In No Great Hurry. “The real world has more to do with what’s hidden.” Ever the mysterious figure, Leiter leaves it at that, and lets us try to figure out what he means.
If I had to take a guess, I’d say that he was making a coy reference to his own career as well as the ethos of his art. Operating mainly in the 1950s, Leiter existed as an unusually quiet exponent of the New York school of photography, a loose collection of New York-based photographers which house such famous shooters as Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon, and Garry Winogrand. But unlike his contemporaries, his work never enjoyed any kind of fame. Leiter instead eschewed fame and recognition in pursuit of something else – beauty itself.
In this pursuit, Leiter developed a completely singular, idiosyncratic style of urban photography. Instead of seeking out the anxiety and pain that is so often the subject of street photographers, Leiter chose to seek out the moments of quiet beauty that exist within urban chaos. The work that resulted remains some of the most profound photography on urban living.
The label of “street photographer” applies to Saul Leiter only in the most technical sense. The classically-informed compositions of Cartier-Bresson or the gritty, in-your-face candids of Winogrand are far from Leiter’s beautifully obtuse compositions. Nowhere is this more evident than in Shopper, one of Leiter’s signature street shots.
Leiter’s indirect style shines through particularly in this image. Rather than pointing his camera directly at a department store shopper, Leiter chooses to point his camera at a set of nearby mirrors, each slightly offset from the other. This offset between mirrors slices the shopper’s out-of-focus reflection in two, creating a fragmented impression of the shopper, and a portrait of the fragmented nature of modern living.
Carol Brown, Harper’s Bazaar, 1958
Artists who lack the luxury of stable finances often have to compromise between their personal and professional work. Only in very rare instances do the personal and professional intersect, and it’s even rarer for these two often opposing tracks to become one in the same. Leiter managed to accomplish this rare feat while working as a fashion photographer for Harper’s Bazaar.
It seems strange to appoint a photographer as specific and art-centric as Leiter to a commercial position, but the decision turned out to be a masterstroke. Leiter’s unorthodox and unusually personal approach to fashion photography resulted in images that dance along the line between commercial fashion photography and fine art.
Leiter’s portrait of Carol Brown is, to me, the most representative of his style of fashion photography. It’s an unusually inventive fashion portrait on one level, and a classic Saul Leiter portrait on the other. Instead of focusing in on Carol Brown herself, he shifts the focus to a wire bowl positioned directly in front of her. He uses that wire bowl simply to decorate her slightly out-of-focus visage, again rendered beautifully impressionistic by his tasteful use of depth-of-field. It may not be the most straightforward piece of fashion photography, but it is definitely one of the genre’s most beautiful and poignant works.
Through Boards, 1957
Color photography, for whatever reason, has always been viewed as an amateurish diversion compared to the more “artistically pure” medium of black-and-white photography. Leiter himself often railed against this notion, and blamed color’s undeserved amateur reputation on the snobbery of academics who “don’t actually know what they’re talking about.”
Leiter’s 1957 image Through Boards is enough for me to side with him on this debate. This image is a brilliant example of what color can do when treated with purpose. The otherwise ho-hum 1950s New York street scene only takes up a sliver of the frame while the rest is obscured by boards painted in red and black. Leiter frames his subject not only with line and form, but with color. The bold red and black surrounding the scene lends an ominous feel to an already claustrophobic composition, and serves as Leiter’s commentary on the cramped, hyper-focused nature of urban living.
The Kiss, 1952
The Kiss is perhaps my favorite Saul Leiter photo despite it being more traditional, and more derivative, than his other images. Alfred Eisenstaedt and Robert Doisneau had already made this type of image by the time Leiter made his. What sets this image apart from its forbears is that Leiter truly captures what that kiss in a busy crowd would feel like, especially in the modern age.
If one of Leiter’s aims as a photographer is to reveal the moments of beauty that can occur in the inhuman, absurd environment of a big city, he accomplishes it here. Through tasteful application of motion blur, Leiter creates a maelstrom of blurred bodies and faces through which these two lovers must fight in order to find connection. But even though they succeed in finding it, they themselves are not portrayed as permanent. Rather, their bodies seem to dissolve into the maelstrom as well, suggesting a fatal impermanence.
But impermanence doesn’t necessarily spell doom; in fact it is the entire reason why that kind of connection, and this image, is so compelling. Leiter tells us here that finding even a momentary connection can be a precious, valuable thing, one that becomes even more beautiful considering the ephemeral nature of modern living.
Harlem is probably the most famous image in Leiter’s oeuvre, and with good reason. It represents his unique style of street photography more than any other image and, in true Saul Leiter fashion, flips the bird at any and all street photography clichés.
Which clichés are those? For one, instead of black-and-white, Leiter chooses the bold colors of Kodachrome, and takes particular advantage of Kodachrome’s beautiful reds to unite almost every component of the image. It’s found first on the truck, then on the bar sign, the Walker’s Gin advertisement, and the man’s tie. The only other color in this photo is a very neutral beige, which lets that beautiful Kodachrome red give an immediacy and unity to the image that wouldn’t be possible in black-and-white.
Leiter also breaks tradition by using a telephoto lens instead of the standard focal length and wide-angle lenses that are so often the tools of street photographers. Leiter’s signature perspective compression is present here, with shop signs and advertisements being used to close in the man staring into the camera and dominate his space in the frame. Leiter’s fine art influence also shows itself here, his telephoto delivering a distinct collage-like feel reminiscent more of Braque than Bresson.
Combined, these techniques paint a dynamic but sensitive portrait of early ’60s Harlem. He paints Harlem as a claustrophobic and overbearing place, but upon closer observation we see him finding the underlying beauty that lies within it, and finding unity in what can seem to be irreparably fractured.
Leiter’s work, apart from being some of the most beautiful work of the mid-20th century, serves as a reminder of the value of beauty itself. To Leiter, beauty was the only thing worth pursuing and he spent his entire life in that pursuit. Fame and fortune never distracted him throughout his career, and as a result he stands as one of the finest and most honest artists to ever pick up a camera.
[Some of the links in this article will direct users to our affiliates at B&H Photo, Amazon, and eBay. By purchasing anything using these links, Casual Photophile may receive a small commission at no additional charge to you. This helps Casual Photophile produce the content we produce. Many thanks for your support.]