things behind the sun: Saul Leiter's "mono no aware" of colors

the seminal song by Nick Drake, with lyrics not relevant to the life of Saul Leiter, has a title which is one of the most wonderful way to label what is bigger than life to me.

from  The Telegraph  UK

from The Telegraph UK

I suppose the term for Saul Leiter is the rarer form of "a photographer's photographer." like few in the field, there is also the qualification of a photographer as a whole person, and not just a collector of scenes. 

« I’ve never been overwhelmed with a desire to become famous. It’s not that I didn’t want to have my work appreciated, but for some reason — maybe it’s because my father disapproved of almost everything I did — in some secret place in my being was a desire to avoid success. My friend Henry [Wolf] once said that I had a talent for being indifferent to opportunities. He felt that I could have built more of a career, but instead I went home and drank coffee and looked out the window. »
— Saul Leiter

this could be assessed from his body of work, principally the work collected for his breakthrough book Early Color (2008). the quietness of his life, and the active evasiveness of fame. in a way, a contradiction of life is that of how well we can observe, and how loud we can be... at the same time. while he deserved immediate recognition and "fame" (whatever form that would have been) since his work in the 50s, one can only be grateful that he chose the way to live that he did.

in a lack of education about photography's many aspect, I came away impressed when discovering Paul Strand's "Wall Street" (1915) photo in the second half of the last decade  — well into my photographic journey. Strand's take on photography was one rang true to the way I saw the interaction of architecture and life. soon after, Paul Strand became a photographer to discover. subsequently, it was Bill Brandt's portrait of Francis Bacon that began to inform me how to have an alternative look at the pursuit of portraits, which would have to wait a few years.

then, there was Early Color. this was not about a single image, but so many things at once that it was overwhelming. there was the form that so impressed me about Paul Strand. there was the portraiture, more in a "street photography" sense, that really came to enhance the impression of Brandt's approach. then there was the color... well, nobody had showed me a way.  yes, there is Ernst Haas work, but Saul Leiter's approach to color had an awareness and sensibility unlike others. this also extends to the lesser discussed sense of composition, which is as strong as any other photographer.

in some ways, Saul Leiter, I could now describe, offers a mono no aware quality to the presentation of color: "the pathos of colored things". 

the elusiveness of this talent must certainly be among the things behind the sun.

Don't be shy you learn to fly
and see the sun when the day is done
if only you see

— Nick Drake, "Things Behind The Sun"

something about Mr. Leiter's patience for life let him see... and feel.


[ link ] Nick Drake "Things Behind The Sun"
[ link ] "Appreciation | At 89, a Pioneering Photographer Finally Gets His Due" — NY Times
[ link ] "Utata's Sunday Salon — Saul Leiter" by Greg Fallis.
[ link ] "Saul Leiter's Retrospective Opens in London" — Telegraph UK
[ link ] "A Casual Conversation with Saul Leither" — Time
[ link ] "The Colour of Genius: Saul Leiter" — Faded and Blurred

[ link ] obit at The Guardian by Sean O'Hagan
[ link ] obit at The New York Times
link ] "POSTSCRIPT: SAUL LEITER (1923-2013)" — the New Yorker
link ] "Photographer Saul Leiter Has Died" — British Journal of Photography 

PS looking at Early Color for the first time is not to dissimilar to this scene from Amadeus


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 ]