Saul Leiter: The Quiet Iconoclast
Saul Leiter has been redefining the parameters of street photography since the 1940s. Working in both black and white and color, he exhibited from the beginning of his career a distinct visual grammar that features off-center perspectives, compressed spatial dynamics, and a predilection for breaking up the frame in unpredictable and exciting ways. His color work, which went unrecognized for decades, is perhaps even more radical in its asymmetrical visual rhythm and defiantly unsaturated tonalities inspired by Johannes Vermeer. Leiter’s work is further distinguished by its indifference to decisive moments of human intercourse. In fact, Leiter might be regarded as the master of the “indecisive” moment – those in-between moments when nothing of much importance seems to be happening but which resonate with a profound if understated sense of interior drama. Leiter is one of photography’s underrated masters, and a living testament to the maxim that the greatest artists are often the most humble and self-deprecating. His black-and-white work was featured in the book “The New York School” and his color images in “Early Color.” The native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, still makes his home in New York City, where he has lived since 1946.
Most descriptions of your color work reference its affinity to painting. Do you ever tire of hearing that, even if it’s true?
No, I’m not tired of it. I think it’s meant as a compliment.
You’re also affiliated with the New York School of photography, but I’m guessing you never felt part of any school or movement. True?
Yes, I never did.
Did you associate with any of the New York School photographers?
I admired Louis Faurer’s work very much. I thought he was unusual. There was a kind of poetry and quirkiness about his work that appealed to me. I admired Robert Frank’s work very much. I think he is a great photographer. What else can you say about him? His work is poetic and beautiful. Robert Frank asked me one day to help Louis Faurer on a fashion shoot. This must have been in the early 1950s. I went to his studio and it was complete madness, so I left. Louis was very angry with me for leaving and didn’t talk to me for years. I knew Diane Arbus. She lived across the street from me. I want to mention the fact that I learned from her biography that I helped her with her laundry one day. Did I really help her with laundry? I’m not so sure.
What kind of response did any of them have to your color work?
Very few people were aware of my color work. My friend Bob Weaver, an unusual artist and illustrator, and Barbara and Dottie and Bobbie would from time to time come to my apartment and see my slide shows.
I understand the painter Richard Pousette-Dark was an early influence, as was Henri Cartier-Bresson. How did their work impact yours?
Most of my friends were painters. I really knew very few photographers, aside from Ray and Diane Whitlin, who I am afraid are not known today. Richard Pousette-Dart was a friend of mine. I liked his work but it was in a total different area. There was an element of Pictorialism about it. He liked enlarging and bleaching and manipulating. But I really don’t think I was influenced by anyone. I think I will leave it up to someone else to determine who influenced me. I admired a tremendous number of photographers, but for some reason I arrived at a point of view of my own.
Did your family and upbringing affect your decision to become and an artist?
No, they did not. My mother thought I could be a rabbi and still paint on the third floor. “Who would know?” she would say. My father thought photography was done by lowlifes. My family was very unhappy about my becoming a photographer—profoundly and deeply unhappy. That’s not what they wanted for me, but I don’t want to go into it.
Did you continue to paint after you took up photography?
Yes. I did. I’ve painted ever since. I have the largest collection of Saul Leiters in the world. There are a few thousand of them. Quite a few of them need more work. I need another 10 years to complete them all. [Laughs]
What was the biggest challenge in developing a personal style?
I wasn’t challenged. The style, if there is any, was just the result of working in photography. I wasn’t immersed in challenges.
You shot fashion for many years for such magazines as Esquire and Harper’s Bazaar. Did you enjoy working in this genre?
Sometimes I enjoyed it very much and at other times not so much. I consider fashion photography to have an honorable position in the history of photography and it doesn’t need apologies. It was a way for me to earn a living. I needed to pay my light bill and my rent and I needed money for food.
Were you able to infiltrate your personal vision into your fashion work?
The answer is yes. I think it was obvious to me that there was a connection between my fashion work and my personal work.
Conversely, did your fashion imagery have any effect upon your personal work?
Yes, surprisingly. My work in fashion sometimes suggested ideas for my personal work. Sometimes I pursued those ideas and sometimes not.
Why did you decide to do street photography in color, when the overwhelming majority of photographers preferred black and white?
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
Walk with Soames, 1958
Color is obviously a big part of your aesthetic, yet I think it sometimes obscures other concerns. For example, the people in your photographs are often hemmed in, fragmented or isolated from one another. Do you see the urban environment as a kind of alienating or isolating entity?
I never thought of the urban environment as isolating. I leave these speculations to others. 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.
Your pictures are both fluid and discordant. Were you conscious of that when you clicked the shutter, or was it more of an instinctive or intuitive response to the city’s visual stimuli?
I was not really aware that my pictures are discordant.
Is it fair to say that you were more interested in evoking the character of New York City’s people rather than its architecture?
I didn’t photograph people as an example of New York urban something or other. I don’t have a philosophy. I have a camera. I look into the camera and take pictures. My photographs are the tiniest part of what I see that could be photographed. They are fragments of endless possibilities.
How would you characterize the emotional tone of your color work?
I must confess that I have never devoted five seconds to thinking about the tone of my color work. Although I understand that people feel differently.
Many of your images have a compressed spatial perspective. Was the telephoto your preferred lens?
I liked different lenses for different times. I am fond of the telephoto lens, as I am of the normal 50 mm lens. I had at one point a 150 mm lens and I was very fond 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. Perfection is not something I admire. [Laughs]. A touch of confusion is a desirable ingredient.
The flattening of the image gives much of your work a cinematic feel. Again, was this an effect you consciously sought?
I don’t plan things. As a rule I prefer to see what happens. If I were to speak of influences, I did at one point have a collection of books put out by an Italian publishing house of stills from a number of famous early movies. I think these books may have had a certain amount of influence on my photographs. That happens to be true. I was more attracted to those sorts of things in terms of my work than other photographers’ works.
I’m intrigued by the fact that you would often use expired color film for its unpredictable effects. With digital imagery, some of the spontaneity and surprise seems to have gone out of photography. Your feelings?
I don’t need to belittle the work of present day photography. I see quite often things that I like and admire. I do digital photography myself. Certain people of my generation decided that the past was better than the present. I am not sure that that is true. I don’t want to be one of those people that says the world has come to an end.
The vast majority of your color images are framed vertically. Can you say why you favored this perspective? Is there something about leading the viewer’s eye in a vertical rather than horizontal manner?
Just call me Mr. Vertical.
The vertical images have a certain feeling of lightness, if you will, as opposed to horizontal pictures, which seem weightier from a visual perspective. Combined with flattened perspectives, they seem to evoke (at least spiritually) Japanese scroll paintings. Were these another influence?
I don’t know if they were an influence, but I did own a collection of Japanese prints at one point. I bought them from a dealer in London. I also had a collection of books on Japanese art. I love the whole world of Japanese art. I love Ogata Korin’s work and I love Tawaraya Sotatsu’s work.
Is there a philosophy or outlook that you have tried to communicate in your work?
I didn’t try to communicate any kind of philosophy since I am not a philosopher. I am a photographer. That’s it.
I understand that for much of your life, you did not make your color work public. Why was that?
At certain points I tried to interest people in my work, and they were not interested. And sometimes I offered to give someone a print and that someone forgot to take it. I was invited to show my work at certain point, but I never opened the letter, which, in retrospect, seemed to not be a very good career move.
What inspired you to finally make it available? Martin Harrison [art historian and the writer/editor of “Early Color”] admired my work. He called me up one day and came over. He got Ilford to pay for some of my printing. Over a period of time he tried to interest people in the work. He became a good friend and I owe him a great deal. Then Jane Livingston put me into the “New York School” book, and then I ran into Howard Greenberg and his gallery. Then, after many attempts, Martin persuaded Steidl to publish the book on early color, which was, I believe, well received. And Martin will work very soon on a book on my early black and whites.
Foot on El, 1954
Do you feel that color was a more congenial medium for you than black and white?
At the moment, people know more about my work in color than my work in black and white. I can understand that some people may prefer the color. When the black-and-white book appears we’ll see. There’s a different sensibility at work in my color than in my black and white. I hesitate to suggest that my black-and-white work is inferior. We will have to wait and see. I don’t even know my own work.
Are you still taking photographs?
Yes. Sometimes color, but mostly black and white. I use small digital cameras because I am very old and weak. [Laughs]
Do you feel that you still have new things to communicate?
No. I am washed up and finished, but I will continue anyway. [Laughs] I still do everything that I’ve always done in one way or another.
Does it become easier or harder to make compelling imagery as time goes by and you compile a larger body of work?
It’s very easy. I haven’t forgotten how to take pictures.
Have you gotten used to your newfound fame?
I am not immersed in self-admiration. When I am listening to Vivaldi or Japanese music or making spaghetti at three in the morning and realize that I don’t have the proper sauce for it, fame is of no use. The other way to put it is that I don’t have a talent for narcissism. Or, to put it yet another way, the mirror is not my best friend. [Laughs]
(I profiled Leiter’s work in the April 2009 issue of COLOR magazine. His work is represented by the Howard Greenberg Gallery, which I would like to thank for providing images.)