Solitaire (subway platform at Grand Central Station, NYC)
Even though I never gave a moment’s thought to Saul Leiter, I have him to thank for the above image.
R Train Portrait Near Prospect Park
This one, too…and this:
And this, too…and many more in this series that I’m not going to show at this time.
Before Saul Leiter, I thought about: Helen Levitt:
….and still do, because her work is a huge personal influence and she is one of the greatest artists ever to walk the streets with a camera. I think of Salgado (who doesn’t??):
One of the most memorable portraits I’ve seen…Salgado.
I love many many photographers…Levitt and Salgado are only two, two that come to mind in the moments as I write this.
But what about Leiter?
I never gave him a second of my time. I never once thought about him or his work or where he lived. I dismissed him immediately, as I had heard from another photographer that his influence was strong in some circles, and because I didn’t respond to the lifeless imitations I assumed that I’d dislike the original article.
Out of bored, rainy-day-in-New -York-City curiosity I threw the name “Saul Leiter” into Google and I came up with this:
Saul Leiter, East Village
Along with these beauties:
How many times have I seen this condensation picture on Instagram? More times than I can count…but only the utterly unique vision, and innovative camera work of the creator is present in the beauty and subtlety of the original work.
I generally dislike umbrellas in Street Photography…and now I understand why there are so many of these images. Red umbrellas abound…but are there any with the sensitivity in these images? They are imitations of the genius present in the above work. I understand the desire to emulate these beautiful pictures–pictures, not “shots”–but they are impossible to recreate. It’s simply not enough to pick up a camera, and deliberately seek to take photographs like anyone else’s. These images came to him on a whim, an idea held aloft by a whisper, impossible to articulate. Just like we hope for every day, as we go into the world and search for an epiphany in a picture, and hope we are prepared to capture its uniquely beautiful character, as it will be almost gone before we register its presence. An image like this is an inimitable combination of the photographer’s heart, and insight, and vision…and point of view.
Leiter was not attached to that often cited attribute of modern photography known as “sharpness” (I am guilty of this myself…) He didn’t post his vision on social media. He did these beautiful works on his own, in a time when his thoughts on color photography were at odds with the prevailing opinions and expressions in Street Photography. Black and white was the fashion, and color was looked upon dismissively and disdainfully.
I wonder this: if there had been Instagram or Flickr or any other social media outlets during the time (1940’s through to the 1970-80’s) that Leiter was most actively creating his work, would he have continued? Would he have felt discouraged by his lack of “likes”, because his work was not fitting in with the popular trending ideas about color photography produced by other street photographers? Would he have begun to believe that he and his pictures were completely without value, and would he have stopped making his pictures?
Could Leiter have conceived of how many times his work would be mercilessly copied once he was unearthed? No…and quite honestly he may not have cared about it at the time….until he realized that other people were actively profiting from his original images, while he sat unable to pay his bills. Thankful we should all be that social media had not yet been created, and that Saul was left alone, ignored, and able to produce his outstanding works of art unfettered by the need to please, or influenced in any way by popular thought.
“I spent a great deal of my life being ignored. I was always very happy that way.”
I know that I dismissed him….until I left my preconceptions behind and took a look at the original, inspired and inspiring work of Saul Leiter. And it has changed me forever, in my approach and in my understanding of creative self expression and originality.
I believe that it’s critical to find our own vision and voice, and resist the many temptations that seeing the work of other artists on a daily basis present to us. My thoughts and deficits and emotions are working together, however dysfunctional they may be, to create a new series of pictures that I feel are representative of what’s going on around me and in my head. Although my pictures are nothing like Leiter’s, I hope to be able to retain some semblance of originality in this tidal wave of pictures, of influences and influencers. There will never be another Saul Leiter. He forged ahead, mostly broke, selling off his possessions periodically to pay his bills, taking his photographs and living in a tiny apartment in the East Village. He didn’t care about what you or me or anybody else thought about anything he did artistically on his own time. He didn’t post on social media, and he most certainly did not copy his style or images from works that preceded him or from other photographers of his time. He was a true artist, and worth far more than he ever got paid.
Documentary about Saul:
A beautiful film, worth watching. A scene from the movie I found to be especially poignant was the short view of him holding his most current camera….not a Nikon or Leica or Canon or Sony A7riii….this legend sat, holding a camera that most camera aficionados would loudly deride.
Forget about YouTube and Instagram for an hour or so, and give the work of Saul Leiter some time. And, if you do, remember that he didn’t give a shit about “likes”. And go out, and seek a vision, your own and not someone else’s…..forget the falsehood that is social media and follow your heart, and your own path will reveal itself.
Saul in his East Village Apartment….111 East 10th Street