Saul Leiter died yesterday (Tuesday 26th November 2013).
Strangely, he’d been on my mind recently. I hadn’t even heard of him til a few months ago when a stranger who saw my Leica started talking to me in the street saying he’d just been to see a Saul Leiter documentary at the ICA in London. Then he crossed my radar in the last couple of months as I worked through the Colour module of the Art of Photography course. Last night I was trying to find an online copy of the aforementioned documentary ‘In No Great Hurry’ and when I failed in that pursuit, I went to Waterstones at lunchtime today to see if they had a copy of his ‘Early Colour’ book (they didn’t). Once back at my desk I read the news that he’d passed away.
I won’t give a potted biography as you can get that through a little light googling. From a purely photographic point of view, I was immediately drawn to his innovative and striking use of colour in street photography. The genre of street photography tends to get stereotyped as being predominantly black-and-white, as that seems to lend an air of documentary authenticity to images, as well as suiting the graphical elements (lines, patterns etc) in urban settings. But Leiter turned that on its head, shooting in vivid Kodachrome film and producing a body of work that captures the streets of New York not in the usual moody monotone, but in bright, saturated colours that jump off the page, through your eyes and straight into your brain.
His juxtapositions of vivid, solid colour in strong blocks demonstrate a use of colour as core element of imagery that I haven’t seen in many other photographers. His use of colour is brave, bold and demands your attention. In some images it comes across not as ‘capturing colour subjects’ but ‘capturing colours’ in and of themselves, with the shape they happen to have fallen in, the form the colours happen to have taken, treated as secondary. Many images veer towards abstract, and it was no surprise to learn that he was a painter as well as a photographer. Whether consciously or not, he seemed to love to ‘amp up’ what he saw: exaggerate colours, isolate details, simplify the composition into strong geometric shapes.
One very specific aspect of his work that made me take notice was his regular use of glass – such as reflections, misted windows, and the distortions that they bring. He used this technique a lot, and to great effect. Combined with his colour palette and his unusual angles and other compositional quirks, it gives a slightly other-worldly view on what would otherwise be a regular street scene.
One of the shots I took for the assignment – one I personally felt very proud of, and one which my tutor singled out for praise – has elements of the Leiter visual language in it. I’m not claiming to be of the same calibre by any means, but there must have been some influence going on in my head; it wasn’t a deliberate attempt at any particular style; it was only after the event that I realised I may have been inspired, subconsciously.
Before starting the Colour module I was carrying a kind of photographic snobbery around in my head, the one that’s been erroneously repeated down the decades – that colour is inferior to b/w photography, that it’s garish and only good for fashion and advertising, it’s not ‘art’, it’s not ‘authentic’… well a couple of months on I have 100% changed my view on that. Colour photography absolutely can be art, it can be innovative it can be beautiful, it can be abstract, it can be painterly, it can be evocative, expressive, thought-provoking…
And one of the reasons I now believe all that is: Saul Leiter.