Illuminant: Saul Leiter’s vision of the world

Bird in Flight starts a series of publications where photographers speak about masters whose work inspires them most. In the first issue Ukranian photographer Konstantin Ilyanok shares his enchantment with the unique photographs and wonderful personality of Saul Leiter.

It’s now hard to remember what exactly what I was looking for, but Google responded to my query with a photograph full of condensed red color. And right away I found myself inside it. It’s early 1950s, the sun is blazing, I am two steps away from a bar ready to dive into its shade and have a drink, from a massive glass of course, with some ice cubes, possibly. A coloured gentleman asks me for a light as he walks out of the shade. I try to guess what he does for a living, but the mere attempt to look into his eyes costs a lot of effort – his fiery tie with flower pattern is so distracting.

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The virtual presence effect was so powerful it urged me to look at a few more photographs by that author, done in the same saturated colour scheme. And there I was – walking in the streets of an unknown city, my gaze clinging to minor details. I was gazing at reflections, gaping at street signs and staring at faces of passers-bye through steamy windows of cafes, bars and grocery shops. Ever since that time I keep admiring this city, finding my way through a colourful crowd or waiting at a cross-roads, together with Saul Leiter.

Saul Leiter was born in 1923 in Pittsburg in a family of Polish emigrants. Having disappointed his father, a respectable Talmud expert, with his passion for painting, Leiter leaves his parents’ home at age 23 and goes to live on the East coast, forever destroying his parents’ dream to one day see him as a rabbi. As he becomes familiar with the New York school of abstract expressionism and its representative Richard Poussette-Dart, Leiter begins taking part in group exhibitions and takes up street photography. Later he will say it was Poussette-Dart and photographer William Eugene Smith who motivated him to consider photography seriously. Trying to make some money, Leiter starts shooting for The Vogue UK, Harper’s Bazaar and Elle, while taking street photos in his free time.

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Up till the mid 1970s colour photography was treated as a useless hobby – it was believed that colour distracts from content, making the shot superficial and entertaining. Besides, the development and printing process were more complicated and considerably more expensive. But Saul Leiter as early as 1948 starts using colour reversible film that allowed him to skip the printing process and occasionally invite friends to his home for slide projection parties.

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.

Saul Leiter’s works are a real treasure that wasn’t discovered until very recently because of his wonderful personality. Leiter didn’t try to be famous. There is one quote that I particularly like that testifies to this person’s incredible modesty: ‘In order to build a career and to be successful, one has to be determined. One has to be ambitious. I much prefer to drink coffee, listen to music and to paint when I feel like it. I prefer a lot of things to building plans for conquering the world.’

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Saul Leiter was a man ‘In No Great Hurry’ (the name of a documentary about him), the poetry of his works make him stand aside of the coarse matter-of-fact photography of his day. It was decades later that the publisher Martin Harrison and gallerist Howard Grinberg discovered Leiter’s slides, scanned them and put them together in a monograph titled ‘Early Colour’ that was sold out in a flash. Following which many photographs found their way to private collections.

The value of his works is mainly in the fact that he anticipated the rest of photographers by the mere fact that he understood the power of colour and created his own unique style. And, undoubtedly, Leiter the painter was the teacher of the Leiter the photographer in terms of colour patterns, composition, the form and the detail. What matters is the suspense, the second-long hesitation of the viewer as he is taking in the image. The role of light is also very important: its reflections, unexpected patches of light sometimes make one look at an unsophisticated theme for a long time. Leiter’s photographs are enchanting with their touching and soft beauty. ‘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’, Saul Leiter said.

‘I don’t know if my life has been what I wanted it to be because I never knew what I wanted. It’s quite possible that my work represents a search for beauty in the most prosaic and ordinary places. One of the things that photography gives to me is the pleasure of seeing. I have a very simple idea of the world. To me the world is a source of endless pleasure.’ Saul Leiter died in New York in November 2013.

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Text: Konstantin Ilyanok, photos by Saul Leiter.

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