THE REMARKABLE LEGACY OF SAUL LEITER
By Laurie Cohen
While I don’t make it a habit of writing about other photographers and their work, some artists leave such a deep and ingrained impression on me that I feel it would be wrong not to pay homage to their creative genius, the legacy of their art to the world, and how on a personal level, their work would inspire me. With this in mind, I can think of no better example than the sublime photography of Saul Leiter.
Leiter started shooting black and white & colour street photography in the 1940’s, though he was more known publicly as a successful fashion photographer in the 1950’s. The unfolding story surrounding his personal work and how it was hidden away in boxes for years, not printed until the 1990’s is as remarkable as the quality of the work itself.
Born to a Talmud scholar, Leiter had initially studied to become a Rabbi. At the age of 12 his mother bought him his first camera, which ultimately sealed his destiny to become an artist. At 23 he left his native Pittsburgh and moved to New York City where he began to pursue art in painting, before discovering black and white photography. As one of the main contributors to the New York School of Photography, Leiter began associating with other photographers such as Robert Frank and Diane Arbus.
For me, Leiter went far beyond what is today considered Street Photography. Rather than just capturing random strangers spontaneously in their environment, he often included inanimate objects at close distance to either frame the point of focus, or as part of an abstract image to compliment the overall scene.
This style of creating images, where the eye of the viewer wanders over the scene becoming absorbed into the varying degrees of depth, colour and light, I find to be absolute genius. And given the nature of the impulsive and fast-moving pace of street photography, I have an even greater respect for Leiter’s work. When viewing his work for the first time, It can seem that the stark isolation of details or the elements as a whole were somehow perfectly placed for maximum impact. For photographers that are familiar with Leiter’s work, viewing his images time and again is testament to how utterly unique and honest his work continues to be to this day.
As is the case with other photographers that influenced my love of the art, Saul Leiter received no formal training, just relying on his own curiosity and the resulting expression of the world around him. His desire to experiment with out-of-date film to capture colour shifts with muted tones of everyday life, and how he viewed the perplexities and simplicity of life is as refreshing to me as it is timeless. Leiter was one of the original pioneers of using colour film.
Looking through his colour images, the viewer will often get a sense of Leiter’s photographic signature – images captured through reflections, mirrors and glass, shadows and silhouettes, the context of colour, out of focus elements to create depth… what were glimpses of everyday life. Images of the bustle of street life taken in full sunlight on the streets of New York feel as real as a mailman hiding from the cold on a snow-filled day. And it is this level of realism that ultimately captivates me.
A True Legend
Today, In an age where the average photographer is obsessed with his/her camera’s high ISO or noise level performance, looking at Saul Leiter’s images reminds us that in the end, it is the creative aspect, not the technical results that make a true masterpiece.
Saul Leiter died on November 26, 2013 in New York at the age of 89. Today, his works are held in the collections of the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and the Art Institute of Chicago, among others. Through his publications and exhibitions, he will be remembered as a true legend in the art of photography.
Join Us For Street Photography
While we can never claim to reach the heights of Saul Leiter’s level of street photography, this form of artistic expression is very much a part of what we do at Photo Workshop Adventures. Many of our adventures around the world include street photography as a core element of how we experience the destinations we visit.
Our scheduled trips to New York City, Cuba, Barcelona and Vietnam are just a few examples where we spend time pursuing this art form. And be sure to read Laurie Cohen’s other work on Street Photography in Foreign Countries for more inspiration.