Saul Leiter, a photographer with a painter’s eye
Blurry silhouettes on a misty window, layers of reflections on the mirror through a glass panel, red umbrellas (or of any colour, actually). Photos that look like everything’s going on, yet nothing’s going on at the same time; these reveal the artistic flair of the masterful Saul Leiter.
In a time when colour photography was not yet well-appreciated, Leiter managed to hold on to his love for colour and created frames with compositions that were truly rare, where all rules of this craft were challenged. Leiter was known for impressively breaking the “rules of composition”, with subjects seen off-centered, not complying with the “rule of thirds” or be in shadows (even partially obscured), behind or visible through an object, window or mirror in the foreground.
Leiter’s nature of breaking rules was the very stepping stone that directed his life towards what it has been today. Born in 1923 in Pittsburgh to a Jewish family, his father was a leader in the city’s Orthodox Jewish community. Leiter meant to continue that lineage, but decided to uproot himself at the tender age of 23 to begin his career in art in New York City, where he stayed for around 60 years. His family did not approve of the change in his trajectory of life. “I got fed up with the whole religious world and all the preoccupations with purity and nobility and observance—I wanted to be free of those things,” said Leiter in a documentary about him.
Generally, most people strive to be known and successful in the things they do, especially in this era where sharing is just second to nature. But Leiter had a different notion. He didn’t care about becoming famous, successful or amazing; he didn’t want to. In his words, “I was hoping to be forgotten. I aspired to be unimportant”. Except for his inner circle, no one saw his personal colour work until towards the end of his life. This quirky character of Saul Leiter is as singular as the way he frames his photographs.
“I happen to believe in the beauty of simple things. I believe that the most uninteresting thing can be very interesting,” Leiter shared his ideology, if you will, behind his photographs. Each frame shows a sense of calm enjoyment for the hidden beauty in the world. What people tend to neglect, he treasured and captured in a way that would open up the eyes of others in the most transformative way. His pictures often feel like he was eavesdropping on his subject or quietly watching them, not to disrupt what was already going on but to capture just a glimpse of it all.
Saul Leiter was also a painter. Though he’s still best known for his photographs, Leiter continued to paint for the rest of his life. Later in his life, Leiter combined both passions in a series of painted-over nude photographs. His brushworks were so free and exciting, his choice of colours was daring and loud. In these painted photographs, Leiter's paint bursts with energy and motion even when the woman is lying at rest.
Saul Leiter is truly a photographer with a painter’s eye. The supreme example of endless possibilities, of living in the moment, and of working creatively with whatever that moment presents you.