Most people haven’t heard of Saul Leiter, yet he was one of the great photographers of the 20th Century. The reason you might not know him or his work is because he simply didn't care about pursuing recognition or a particular career path. With his passing last month, let’s use this opportunity to reflect back on his stunning work, and see what we can all learn from his artistic vision, his philosophies and his razor sharp eye.
Today there are more options than ever to learn from some of the greatest photographers out there. Workshops, online tutorials, books, YouTube - it's all immediately accessible. But what about those great photographers who simply aren't on the radar, or prefer to be out of the spotlight? Saul Leiter was one such photographer, both a master of his craft as well as someone who simply didn't care if he was known or not. It's partly what makes him so fascinating and so at odds with the common view today of having to be our own best marketeers.
The Godfather of 'Saul'
Saul was originally going to be a painter, and there is an undeniable painterly quality to much of his work.
His composition, framing, multiple planes of vision, and use of contrast and color all comes together to produce great emotion and is simply beautiful. When we talk about photography being able to capture a split second of some magical moment in the world around us, I think of Saul’s work. It has real emotion, real soul to it.
Although his black and white work was well regarded (Steichen was an early admirer and included some of it in a MOMA exhibition back in 1947), Saul was called a “pioneer of color”. Back in 1948 he began shooting color film at a time no one else really did. Color photography was seen as garish, superficial and for commercial work. Saul, like Helen Levitt and Ernst Haas, embraced color ahead of the trend.
It wouldn’t be fully accepted as a medium for almost 20 years, until Eggleston’s work became popular.
Pioneer of color or not, Saul called see.
Man-oh-MAN, could he see! His use of form, ambiguity, off center composition and vertical framing all converge to give us something magical. It’s what makes his best shots “slow burners”. I find myself being taken on a visual journey through his photographs. I don’t think Saul knew himself what gave this quality to his work. He said, “If I’d only known which ones would be very good and liked, I wouldn’t have had to do all the thousands of others.”
Saul Leiter, Fashion Photographer?
An even lesser known fact was that Saul shot fashion. The abstract style he shot on the street was present in his fashion work. His vision never wavered. At a time in the 1950s when fashion focused on very straightforward posing, highlighting the models, the clothing and the accessories, he took a far more abstract approach. It was successful - over the next 20 years, he shot for Elle, British Vogue, Nova, Show and Queen magazines.
Saul lived just long enough to just about see the fruition of the documentary that was shot about his life and work, “In No Great Hurry”. It had taken three years to make and put together, and premiered in New York just eleven days before he passed away.
In the documentray, Saul provides some great life lessons that we can all take something from and apply to whatever we shoot.
I’ve summarized a few that I really like here:
1. Go Against The Grain
At a time when color photography was derided by the photographic community, Saul just didn’t care. He loved to shoot in color and so that’s what he did.
Follow your own heart and shoot what you love, regardless of what others may say or what the “consensus” view is.
2. Taking Photography Seriously
“Everything is suitable to be photographed”. Saul saw beauty in very simple things most of us miss. He didn’t see anything wrong with showing his view of the world, and showing us beauty.
Simplicity can often make for the most powerful and resonant images, and we often forget this as we confound ourselves in what camera/lenses/lighting/processing we need to use.
3. On Looking For Photographs
Saul says he “never recalled going out looking for a photo”. Many photographers who shoot on the street carry a camera to look for the “happy accidents”, the moments you simply can’t predict.
There are opportunities everywhere, from the sunset over a beautiful field or landscape, to the grimiest streets of New York. It’s all there for the taking and shooting a lot with whatever camera we happen to have can help train our eye and mind to see what’s often right in front of us.
4. Don't Separate Personal and Client Work
Saul never separated his vision or style depending on who he shot for. This is something so important (and something so difficult at times) to do.
If we really want to become known and booked for work we want to shoot, not compromising on our vision and approach is critical, as is shooting the work we want to be known for.
5. Do It For Love And For Yourself First
For Saul it was simple – he wasn’t out to please anyone but himself.
Love what you shoot and shoot what you love, and do it for yourself first and foremost.
6. Creating “Pleasant Confusion”
Saul says there is a “certain charm in discomfort and disorder, and a pleasant confusion can be sometimes satisfying”. I love the phrase “pleasant confusion”. Sure, we need to get the techniques and basic “rules” under our belt – but we should look to push ourselves out of your comfort zone, break rules and try new techniques, even if it feels "wrong".
Maybe shoot black and white only, shoot vertically if you shoot mainly horizontally, or try a different lens or focal distance for a shoot that you don’t normally use. Mix it up, enjoy (and embrace) the confusion.
7. Don’t Rush
“Most things we worry about in life aren’t important”. This one is so easy to forget. We worry about saving minutes or even seconds even out of our busy, fragmented lives. If we think in terms of our work, our art, our career, our photography extending beyond today, beyond this week, month or even year, I find it helps put things in perspective a little.
Physically slowing down when we shoot also helps us see with more clarity. In New York City, strolling around is usually reserved for tourists but I find I see so much more when I move more slowly. With digital we can often just shoot without thinking, it’s why many people still like to shoot a roll of film. Shoot less, see more.
What do you aspire for your photography and your photographic career? Which would you prefer, to be known and successful, or to love what you do and get paid something to shoot what you love?
I think for most of us, making a living and being able to shoot what we love would be a great balance and place to be. For all his great work, it’s perhaps Saul’s general outlook on life that reserves a special place in my heart for him and what he stood for. He summarizes his own view on these questions beautifully:
"I was constantly aware that those who hired me would have preferred to work with a star such as Avedon. But it didn't matter. I had work and I made a living. At the same time, I took my own photographs."
All Images Copyright Saul Leiter / Courtesy of Howard Greenburg Gallery