The of most important part of photography isn’t anything technical, it’s where you point the camera.
It’s why 99% photos look dull, everybody points in the same direction.
Often it’s because people don’t think that they have other options, or they feel too self-conscious to point their camera in the ‘wrong’ direction, it feels so unnatural.
“Seeing is a neglected enterprise.” as Saul Leiter put it.
He must’ve looked weird whilst doing his seeing; his camera would be pointing in all the wrong directions; inches away from a shop window, pointing at someones shoulder rather than their face or with something in the way, like a wall.
Because he’s trying to find things that haven’t been seen, shining a light on objects and angles that have spent their lives in the shadows.
Seinfeld is often described as ‘a show about nothing’, Saul Leiter’s shots could also be described as pictures of nothing.
Both descriptions would be wrong.
“Everything is suitable to be photographed” said Leiter “I happen to believe in the beauty of simple things. I believe that the most uninteresting thing can be very interesting.” He said.
1923: Born in Pittsburgh. The son of a rabbi and distinguished Talmudic scholar.
1935: Gets his first camera, from his mum.
1945: Quits rabbinical school.
1946: Moves to New York City to pursue painting in 1946.
1947: Meets the Abstract Expressionist painter Richard Pousette-Dart, who was experimenting with photography. Leiter’s friendship with Pousette-Dart, and soon after with W. Eugene Smith.
1947: Discovers the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson. Inspired.
1947: Included in a MOMA exhibition curated by Edward Steichen.
1948: Swiches to colour photography, starts experimenting with Kodachrome 35 mm film that’s past its sell-by date.1950’s: Leiter’s street imagery gets him noticed and commissioned by magazines like Life, before long he was shooting celebrities and stories too.
By the late fifties he was nagged by self-doubt, so would never reply to gallery invitations or hobnob with curators, but desperately short of money he began taking fashion pictures.
“I don’t have a philosophy. I have a camera.”
1958: Esquire published Leiter’s first colour fashion work, it would lead to work for Harper’s Bazaar, Show, Elle, British Vogue, Queen, and Nova and all the major fashion magazines of the day.“Some photographers think that by taking pictures of human misery, they are addressing a serious problem. I do not think that misery is more profound than happiness.”
Here’s an ad where Leiter explains ‘bounce lighting’.
The images look so loose, random almost, that it’s hard to take in.
They can look like a series of happy accidents, so I thought it’d help to break them down into things that Leiter liked.
1. CROP OBJECT OUT OF FRAME.
2. SHOOT INTO REFLECTIONS.
3. SHOOT THROUGH SOMETHING.
4. TEXTURE CAN HELP CREATE AN OTHER-WORLDLY FEEL.
5. THE WORLD LOOKS DIFFERENT AND PEOPLE CUT ODD SHAPES IN SNOW.
6. KEEP AN EYE OUT FOR UMBRELLAS.
7. MAKE WORDS THE STAR.
7. SHOOT FROM ABOVE…WAY ABOVE.
8. PUT SOMETHING IN THE WAY OF THE IMAGE.
9. SHOOT THROUGH THE ROUND WINDOW…OR SQUARE, OR OBLONG.
10. LET THE SHADOW FALL IN THE WRONG PLACE.
Here’s one of his contact sheets, it’s interesting to see what he’s pointing his camera at.
When he started shooting with colour film, 1948, it wasn’t taken seriously, even by the photographic community, it was considered garish and superficial.
Leiter’s subject matter probably didn’t help either.
I would take another twenty years for colour photography to be taken seriously.
It took ’til 2006 for Leiter to be given his first solo exhibition.
Leiter was hailed as a forgotten pioneer.
He remarked “when I am listening to Vivaldi or Japanese music or making spaghetti at three in the morning and realise that I don’t have the proper sauce for it, fame is of no use”.
In 2015 filmmaker Todd Haynes used Leiter as a visual reference for his film ‘Carol’.
“That muted colour palette spoke very specifically of the 1950s, which was well before the shiny, cleaned up, chrome-y period of the Eisenhower era” said Haynes.Ironically, the Oscar nomination for it got cinematography may be the most recognition he’s received,
He died in 2013, one month shy of his 90th birthday.
There’s a great documentary about him here.