The Unseen Saul Leiter
Photographer Saul Leiter (1923–2013) was nothing if not prolific. Leiter was first heavily influenced by Henri Cartier-Bresson and the Abstract Expressionist New York School painters he’d come into contact with in the city. With this and the basis of his own nascent explorations as a painter, Leiter became enthralled by color photography. He would go on to produce over eighty-thousand slides of his work. The Unseen Saul Leiter includes seventy-six of these hitherto unpublished color slides and three essays by The Saul Leiter Foundation directors Margit Erb and Michael Parillo. The images, all untitled, in the book are separated into three sections, relative to source boxes that Leiter labeled before he died. Three essays, written by the directors, tell of Leiter’s archive and process, and how the Foundation mined such an enormous archive to wind up with the seventy-six therein. The texts and the selection of vivid slide images set the book apart from his previous publications. I find a peculiar, distinctive motif of mystery in this selection—the hidden or obscured—as related to Leiter’s depictions of the quotidian, especially those including people. Leiter has spent a great deal of time showing us the magic of everyday life, its hidden angles and hushed moments amid the tumult.
The New York City streets through Leiter’s lens reveal the sides of lives that are seen when people don’t think they’re being listened to or watched, perhaps when they’re most themselves. The examples here are abundant; here are a few from Box 01: a man smiles as he’s kissed on a park bench; a welder toils away amid flying sparks; a little girl pores over printed matter on a train; a woman smells her perfumed wrist. Throughout Unseen, Leiter’s pictures reflect a world less monitored, mediated, and surveilled than the one that we find ourselves in. Leiter treads the line between voyeur and flaneur by way of what he notices and chooses to capture, from the perspective of the artist’s vision of the everyday.
Leiter shows city life at furtive angles, with people in various positions of free association with their ordinary circumstance: having a discussion before departing on a trip; peering into a bookshop window; climbing snowbound steps; or brooding in a doorway over a smoke. There are unsettling shots taken of people without their having known it: the undated kiss photo from his Source box labeled “Personal Park and Lovers.” Leiter took the shot from above, with a foregrounded railing blocking more than half of the composition. Leiter made use of these strange juxtapositions, finding an allure of each aspect. Nothing had to be added, life is as strange as he’s shown it. As Leiter tells it, “I have always admired artists who stuck to a very limited area.”
The photographs in Unseen reveal a delight in the local, the close-at-hand, the particular—and a constant immersion in and attention to the world as it is. Leiter’s images make it seem as if his camera was always in his hand, at his eye. Pictures of rain-soaked or broken windows and on-the-fly shots give a sense of excitement in the ephemeral, possibility of meaning in the ineffable.
The publication of Leiter’s first book of photographs, Early Color, came in 2006, when he was already in his eighties. The book finally brought Leiter an audience, but he never did chase this particular kind of success. Leiter was enthralled by his life of creative work and how strange and beautiful the world can be. About his “well-noted lack of ambition,” Leiter said “there’s something noble about doing nothing” in front of an audience at the School of Visual Arts in 2013.
A fair amount of the slides published in the book entail the strange and ineffable. Many of them situate empty or otherwise intervening spaces, a sense of the in-between: ordinary scenes become disordered by chain-link fences or signs, pedestrians are often foregrounded by cars or trees or signposts, a large crowd of skaters all but hidden by the barren branches of a group of trees. There are also many photographs that only show his subjects’ backsides. Throughout his oeuvre, space tells a story of continuity, partly due to the sense that Leiter gives of its being curtailed or interrupted: scenes composed through windows, sitting in the backseat of a taxi, or otherwise on the go. With all of this fragmentation, Leiter’s pictures somehow seem whole and complete, like a memory.
Leiter himself noted that “the truth of course is that with the passage of time the things that we are surrounded by become as exotic as the things in far-off places.” An attentive slowness like Leiter’s registers subtlety anywhere. Time is flattened; new patterns loosed in the world are likewise loosed in his viewer. Leiter’s spaces, full of atmosphere and dimension—fog and rain and snow—miraculously give time back to the viewer, for imagination and wonder at whatever given story sits beneath their hand. Leiter’s framing opens up otherwise tapered spaces seem to open up. And fragments always tell a different kind of story—one at the very edge of whatever stands between the conscious mind and a given subject.
The best trick that Leiter plays is to make you see more than what’s there, to consider the other side of life. Every other frame is torn out of time and resituated.