you can see a lot by looking: ideas via Saul Leiter

actually, it takes more than what Yogi Berra said, and these words from Saul Leiter may give a hint as to what else is required:

« “I arrived at a way of looking and photographing that was, if I may say so, personal. It was a beginning of a certain kind of photography for me, [...] and my mother was kind enough to keep me afloat. My father would have allowed me to sink.[...] But my own view was that you have things for a while, and then they go off and they live in another place. They deserve to have another home.” (laughs) » [ link ]

thus, you can see a lot by looking and see beyond if letting it be  personal.

as we dive into photography, we may (naturally) be concerned with finding “the shot”, until we realize that the “the shot” can be accidental, and that anyone can get it. this is the equivalent of being trapped in a “one hit wonder” type of syndrome. soon after we may drift into seeking a style, but then, as confronted and dissected in Mike Johnston’s Element of Style [ link ], one can realize that style is not always necessary. “the shot” and having a style are calling cards... but a calling card to what exactly?

Saul Leiter seem to have hit on his stride by realizing that photographing is personal. if one can dare to do so, because if it is personal, then other people’s criticism may also feel personal. however, this is only sensitive because we grant a talent for seeing to whomever offers a criticism. where was that most critical (and rare!) of talents given so easily to so many? they are offering an opinion bathed in their bias and understanding of what a photograph should do to them. rare is the person that tries, and never can achieve, seeing what the photographer intended. is this a copout? hardly. it does not call for ignoring what others say, just to digest it properly, which requires even more effort on the part of the photographer.

Saul Leiter’s photographs are the most important that I have yet encountered. perhaps contradictorily, I think that dwelling in that admiration, while awesome of itself, is to miss the greater point of his work: what circumstances produced such work, and how it may relate to something that is already natural within my approach to life/photography. thus I can “see” his photos for their fantastic realization of who he is, but then to “look” at his photos for a greater significance: that is, in the context of learning from someone about photography to hasten the learning process in the areas of the persona that may overlap with his ideas.

this way to look at his photographs is perhaps summarized in one of Leiter’s greatest accolade, which he cannot provide through a Q&A on his views:

« Max Kozloff said to me one day, ‘You’re not really a photographer. You do photography, but you do it for your own purposes – your purposes are not the same as others’. I’m not quite sure what he meant, but I like that. I like the way he put it.” »  [ link ]

photography, at its best, is personal... and let others figure out what they see. also, like Yogi Berra said:

« nobody goes there anymore. it’s too crowded. »

and as field of photography gets very crowded, one way to keep going there with no worries is to go personal, instead of going to see what everyone else is doing.


• for a brief history, Greg Fallis’ essay is an excellent starting point. [ link ]
• an excellent selection of his photographs at Gallery 51 [ link ]