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Street Photography like Saul Leiter: Mastering Urban Imagery with a Legendary Influence

written by: CLARKE SCOTT 

Saul Leiter’s contribution to street photography is as unique as it is significant, establishing a distinctive style that has influenced the genre profoundly.

Leiter’s innovative approach differed from his contemporaries through the use of color film, which was not widely embraced in the 1940s and 1950s when black and white photography was the norm. His photographs often capture the spontaneity of street scenes through a harmonious blend of colors and shapes, creating abstract pieces that draw the viewer into a moment of urban life.

Leiter’s photography is often characterized by its painterly quality, which is not surprising considering his background as a painter. His images frequently feature the interplay of reflections, shadows, and the blurring of moving subjects, creating a sense of intimate observation and emotional depth. Moreover, his work transcended the bounds of street photography by incorporating elements of fashion photography, showcasing his versatility and artistic vision.

The intimate feel of his photographs is, in part, due to his preference for shooting close to his home in New York City’s East Village, where he captured the city’s rhythm with a delicate and poetic gaze.

Key Takeaways

  • Saul Leiter’s style is marked by the early adoption of color film and a unique, abstract approach to street photography.
  • His equally adept handling of both street and fashion photography demonstrates his artistic range.
  • Leiter’s work is a testament to the emotional and visual depth possible in the realm of street photography.

Understanding Saul Leiter’s Approach to Street Photography

Saul Leiter Pull c. 1960 copyright The Saul Leiter Foundation 1398x2048 1 street photography

My investigation into Saul Leiter’s work reveals a remarkable approach to street photography. Leiter was known for his pioneering use of color film at a time when black and white were the norms. His work often features layers of abstraction, a unique framing of urban life, and a refined sense of color harmony.

Embracing Color: While many contemporaries focused on monochrome aesthetics, Leiter embraced color as an integral part of his photographic art. The play of light and shadow, combined with vibrant hues in scenes of everyday life, became a staple in his images.

Philosophy of Art: Leiter’s philosophy can be summarized as finding beauty in the banal. His imagery often made the mundane captivating, turning fleeting moments into lasting impressions. For Leiter, there was no need for a grand narrative; the simplicity of life was enough.

Technical Elements:

  • Framing: His compositions often use reflective surfaces or obstructions, creating frames within frames.
  • Depth of Field: Leiter manipulated focus to blend subjects into their environments, merging figures with the surrounding cityscape.
  • Search for Beauty: His search for beauty in the every day led to photographs that celebrate the art of seeing.

Importantly, Leiter’s street photography was not invasive but subtle, a gentle observation of the world around him. He demonstrated how the street could be a stage for art, with each element playing a role in the visual symphony. My studies confirm these patterns: Saul Leiter transformed street photography into a form of personal expression that resonates with viewers even today.

The Aesthetic of Saul Leiter’s Color Photography

2010 street photography

In my exploration of Saul Leiter’s work, I find his color photography particularly captivating. Leiter saw New York through a lens of exuberant colors contrasted with deep shadows, creating a visual poetry that was distinctly his own. His work, often captured with expired film, lent an atmospheric quality to the scenes, with rich textures and a masterful balance of hues.

His palette often included sharp punches of red—a hallmark of his color work—offset by cooler tones, bringing a dynamic vibrancy to the often-overlooked details of city life. This use of color wasn’t just aesthetic; it was a narrative device, conveying mood and emotion in the urban landscape. As a contemporary of abstract painter Richard Pousette-Dart, Leiter was no stranger to the concept of abstraction in art, and this influence is evident in the way he framed color and shape in his compositions.

Techniques and Themes:

  • Juxtaposition of colors: Vivid against muted, light against dark.
  • Reflections and Transparency: Layering of colors through natural elements.
  • Fashion and Beauty: Documenting the everyday style of New York’s inhabitants.

Leiter’s technique of shooting through obstacles like wet windows and incorporating reflections added complexity to his images. The blurred shapes and obscured forms often took on the quality of abstract art, revealing his deep connection to painting and his unique vision of beauty and fashion in the streets.

I admire Leiter’s intimate portrayal of New York, achieved not just by capturing its people, but also by documenting the interplay of light and color in urban spaces. His approach transformed mundane moments into something profound, earning him a revered place in the history of color photography.

Technical Aspects of Leiter’s Photography

In examining my work, one can observe a number of distinct technical choices that contribute to the unique aesthetic quality of my street photography. Saul Leiter, whom I view as influential in shaping the genre, utilized color to bring life to the often overcast New York streets. Unlike many contemporaries, I find that Leiter’s work distinctively incorporated expressive hues, favoring the unconventional use of expired film to achieve an ethereal and painterly effect.

Composition and Framing

  • Leiter employed a methodical approach to composition, creating images that emphasize geometric shapes and the play of light and shadow.
  • Negative space was used effectively, allowing the subjects to breathe and conveying a sense of serenity within the bustling city.

Lens Choice and Focal Length

  • Telephoto lenses: These lenses helped compress scenes, tight packing the elements within the frame.
  • The focal lengths varied, but there was often a preference for the way longer lenses contributed to layering different elements when composing a shot.

Focus and Depth

  • Shooting often in rain or snow or through windows led to the incorporation of reflections and textures that softened the focus.
  • Foreground elements were sometimes intentionally left out of focus, with strong colors, injecting a dreamy quality that contrasts with crisp background details.

I maintain that such technical decisions, when combined, signified Leiter’s masterful ability to transform the mundane into the extraordinary. The layering, coupled with the use of color and focus, form the hallmarks of his technique, turning everyday scenes into visually complex and harmonious compositions.

Influence and Legacy in the Art World

My exploration of Saul Leiter’s impact reveals a significant contribution to the art world that is both influential and enduring. His roots lay in the New York School of photography, a movement that captured the essence of urban life with a candid and often stark perspective. I note that, while contemporaries like W. Eugene Smith adhered to more conventional black and white imagery, Leiter ventured into the domain of color. His use of this medium was not merely for aesthetic pleasure but as a tool for narrative and emotion, reminiscent of the poise found in a Vermeer painting.

In my assessment, the Nabis, a group of Post-Impressionist avant-garde artists, paralleled Leiter’s efforts in exploring the intricacies of color and everyday scenes. Leiter’s legacy is marked not just by his affiliation with street photography, but through the poetry of his work that continues to inspire photographers and artists alike. His adept compositional skills, coupled with his interest in Japanese culture, infused his work with a Zen-like quality that offers a tranquil counterpoint to the chaotic urban backdrop.

Noteworthy Influences & Contributions:

  • Composition & Color: Integration of color as a narrative device.
  • Cultural Synthesis: Japanese aesthetics in subject matter and approach.
  • Historical Impact: Pioneering modern street photography within the New York School context.

Rather than dominating headlines during his career, my research indicates that Leiter chose a path of quiet innovation. His influence on the history of art, while perhaps understated during his lifetime, resonates in contemporary dialogues about photography’s potential for intimacy and reflection.

In summary, the significance of Leiter’s work lies in shaping street photography into an art form that is expressive, nuanced, and rich with emotional depth. This is evident as his techniques and perspective continue to be a reference point for modern photographers.

The Role of New York City in Leiter’s Photography

New York City provided me, Saul Leiter, with a vibrant stage for my photographic exploration. In this environment, I saw beyond the bustling streets and towering buildings to capture the subtleties of daily life. My lens frequently fixated on the interplay between natural elements like rain and snow and the city’s inanimate structures. The diffusion of light through these elements enriched my color palette, creating a fusion of hues and gloss that became emblematic of my work.

I often utilized the dense atmospheres brought on by inclement weather to soften the scenes before me. Passersby huddled under umbrellas became unwitting subjects, their forms abstracted by the veils of precipitation. This enabled me to frame moments of anonymity and ephemerality, embodying the transient nature of the city.

Lights, whether they be the distant glow of storefront windows or the vivid neons signs reflecting off wet pavements, played a crucial role in my compositions. These lights, against the often-muted tones, added depth and a sense of warmth to the otherwise cold cityscapes.

Finally, my interpretation of everyday life within New York City’s context was not about grandiose moments but rather the ignored nuances. Sidewalks, reflections, and the layered textures of the urban environment were my muses. I embraced these scenes, viewing the city as an endless source of visual poetry, beckoning to be captured with empathy and a unique perspective.

Comparative Analysis: Saul Leiter and His Contemporaries

In examining my body of work in street photography, I often find it enlightening to contrast my perspective and techniques with those of my contemporaries, such as Henri Cartier-Bresson. Known for his decisive moment philosophy, Cartier-Bresson’s monochrome images focused on the synchronicity of events within the human tableau.

My approach diverged significantly—I embraced color when it was unfashionable, and I drew on my background in fashion photography to add a layer of aesthetic sensitivity to everyday scenes. This was a stark contrast to the prevailing purist ethos, which some of my contemporaries adhered to.

AspectSaul LeiterHenri Cartier-Bresson
Photographic MediumColor where feasible, which infused a painterly quality.Black and white, emphasizing form and contrast.
InfluencesImpressionism & Les Nabis, particularly Bonnard and Vuillard.Surrealism and the Renaissance; geometry within the frame is crucial.
PhilosophySeen through the lens of a painter; no moment too mundane to be unphotographed.The “decisive moment”—capturing the climax of an event or scene.
Fashion InfluenceMy fashion photography influenced framing and depth in my street shots.Less prominent; Cartier-Bresson relegated fashion to his commercial work.
Body of WorkPublished in monographs like “Early Color”.Notably published in “The Decisive Moment”.

In my view, embracing color street photography was not just a stylistic choice; it was a philosophical one. My monograph, “Early Color,” showcased this revolution. Howard Greenberg, a prominent figure in the world of photography, recognized the significance of this shift. Color imagery—once the outlier in the street photography genre—has now become an integral part, largely due to the contributions made by pioneers like me.

Photographic Technique and Composition

In my exploration of Saul Leiter’s work, I’ve observed his masterful use of framing and composition. Leiter’s approach often involves the use of reflections and shadows to add depth and interest to his images. He had a penchant for integrating elements such as wet glass surfaces and mirrors, which created multiple layers within a single photograph. Such reflections not only captured the dynamic nature of the street but also infused a painterly quality that is distinctive of his style.

Leiter was adept at finding order in the chaos of the urban environment. He frequently used a selective focus technique, bringing attention to a foreground element while allowing the background to softly blur. This choice emphasized the subject within its context while maintaining a sense of simplicity in the overall composition.

The use of vibrant colors, often cast by shop windows or street signs, added a unique dimension to his photographs, emphasizing the interplay of light and dark. Leiter’s use of shadows was not merely for contrast; it played a critical role in the narrative of the image. These shadows were carefully incorporated to lead the viewer’s gaze across the scene, offering a subtle guide through the visual narrative.

In my interpretation of his work, the following key aspects stand out in Leiter’s photographic technique:

  • Framing: Crafting images with an intentional border, often using windows or doorways to encapsulate the scene.
  • Foreground Elements: Positioning objects near the frame to draw immediate attention and lead the viewer’s eye into the scene.
  • Reflections & Shadows: Utilizing natural reflections and shadows to add layers and complexity to an image.

By examining Leiter’s work, I’ve learned that complexity doesn’t necessitate clutter. On the contrary, his photographs show that a layered image can be both intricate and beautifully ordered.

Saul Leiter’s Journey: Recognition and Exhibitions

I quickly learned that Saul Leiter’s photography journey was as much about his pioneering work as it was about the recognition he ultimately received. His creative use of color in street photography wasn’t fully acknowledged until the later stages of his career; however, his contributions have since been recognized as groundbreaking.

Late success was a hallmark of his journey. Leiter didn’t seek fame aggressively; instead, it found him. In the 1990s, his prints began to see the limelight. A pivotal point came when the Howard Greenberg Gallery held its first exhibition of his color work in 1997. Those familiar with the gallery understand its stature in the photography world; it was a significant mark of success and privilege for Leiter to display his work there.

It was at this exhibition where many observed the unique workshop of the city streets that had been Leiter’s canvas. His expressive and sometimes abstract views of New York were presented richly in Kodachrome color, immortalized in prints that captured the ephemeral qualities of daily life.

The recognition of his work only grew from there. Leiter’s photos—characterized by their intimate spontaneity and often using expired Kodachrome film—have earned their place in the world of street photography. Even before then, Leiter had been part of the creative community in New York, but it was his exhibitions that cemented his visual language as a part of photography’s history.

Exhibitions of Note:

  • Howard Greenberg Gallery: First color work exhibition in 1997.
  • Later Exhibitions: Posthumous displays continue to highlight Leiter’s unseen images and his substantial legacy.

Philosophical and Emotional Dimensions of Leiter’s Work

In my exploration of Saul Leiter’s photography, I’ve come to understand that his work is deeply rooted in a philosophy that appreciates the nuanced beauty of the quotidian. A hallmark of my street photography, much like Leiter’s, is the persistent search for beauty in the mundane—I seek out moments that might otherwise be overlooked, bathing them in color and presenting them in a way that evokes a poetic resonance.

My Aesthetic Approach:

  • Observation: I am keenly observant, focusing on the interplay of light and shadow.
  • Mystery: My compositions often leave room for enigmatic elements, inviting viewers to unearth the story within.
  • Color: I follow Leiter’s unconventional use of color to document life’s vibrancy, shifting away from monochromatic traditions.

My photography is not merely documentary; it strives to capture the emotional and transcendent qualities that Leiter mastered. The philosophical undertones in my work reflect a Zen-like approach, which celebrates living in the moment while maintaining a positive perspective. Each frame I capture aims to freeze time, seizing those uplifting moments and the mysteries that unfold in the symphony of street life.

The poetic aspect is ever-present in my images, as I often employ an unconventional lens to compress scenes into a distinctive geometric look—a nod to Leiter’s legacy. The emotional dimension of my work is a tapestry of life’s fabric, illustrating how even the most ordinary settings can be a canvas for the extraordinary. My use of vibrant, often jarring color, cuts through the grays of everyday life, documenting the world with an undercurrent of joy and wonder.

Frequently Asked Questions

In this section, I’ll answer common questions related to the distinctive techniques and influences of Saul Leiter’s street photography, as well as guide enthusiasts on how to delve deeper into his style through books and contemporary artists.

What techniques are characteristic of Saul Leiter’s street photography style?

Leiter’s photography is known for its pioneering use of color film, and his style is marked by a painterly quality. He often utilized reflections, layers, and abstraction to create a muted, almost dream-like atmosphere in his urban scenes.

Can you recommend some street photography photo books that capture the essence of Saul Leiter’s approach?

Yes, “Early Color” by Saul Leiter is a seminal book showcasing his innovative use of color and composition that defined his street photography. It’s a collection that beautifully represents his unique vision.

Which contemporary street photographers’ work is most reminiscent of Saul Leiter’s style?

Photographers like Fred Herzog and Alex Webb share similarities with Leiter’s use of color and candid moments. They both offer a unique perspective on urban life, with a keen eye for the interplay of light and color.

Who were Saul Leiter’s biggest influences in his photographic work?

Saul Leiter was influenced by the works of European painters and his early interest in Abstract Expressionism. These influences are evident in his street photography compositions, which often resemble paintings.

What type of equipment and film did Saul Leiter prefer using in his street photography?

Leiter frequently shot with a Leica camera and often used Kodachrome slide film for its rich, saturated colors. This combination allowed him to capture the subtle hues and tones that became hallmarks of his work.

Who are some of the best street photographers to follow on Instagram for work similar to Saul Leiter’s?

For street photography reminiscent of Leiter’s, follow photographers like Steve McCurry and Joel Meyerowitz on Instagram. Their work captures vibrant street scenes with an attention to color and composition akin to Leiter’s style.

Further Reading