ERIC KIM

7 Lessons Saul Leiter Has Taught Me About Street Photography

© Saul Leiter

I can’t remember the exact moment that I discovered the work of Saul Leiter. I think I remember seeing some link on the internet about the discovery of one of the earliest “pioneers” in color street photography. But upon hearing this, I didn’t dig into it too deeply.

About a year ago when I was in Marseille, I re-discovered Saul’s work through a good friend of mine, Yves Vernin. When I left Marseille back to America, he gave me a beautiful Saul Leiter book. When I flipped through the pages, I was overwhelmed by the beautiful colors, reflections, and abstractions of Leiter. It was unlike any street photography I had seen before. It was much more romantic, poetic, and full of expression.

I then started to research more on Saul Leiter and have not only appreciated his images, but his philosophy of life. At his late eighties, he is very down-to-earth, and has no interest in legacy or fame. He lived a simple life and even now with his sudden rise in fame, his ego hasn’t inflated one bit.

In anticipation for the DVD release of his film “In No Great Hurry I wanted to write this article about lessons in street photography (and life) I have learned from Saul Leiter.

1. Compress your images

© Saul Leiter

I have never been a fan of using telephoto lenses in street photography. Generally I find them to be impersonal, and a bit sneaky when taking photos of strangers.

However my opinions have changed once I started seeing the work of Leiter. His images aren’ sneaky at all. They focus on shapes, lights, shadows, abstractions, and the colors of everyday life. Much of his street photography is shot with a relatively long lens– which compresses his scenes. I feel the compression of the scenes with the long lens creates a distinctive geometric look, which I very much enjoy.

In an interview with Time Leiter shares his experiences using a telephoto lens to compress his scenes:

Q: Many of your images have a compressed spatial perspective. Was the telephoto your preferred lens?

Leiter: I liked different lenses for different times. I am fond of the telephoto lens, as I am of the normal 50 mm lens. I had at one point a 150 mm lens and I was very fond it. I liked what it did. I experimented a lot. Sometimes I worked with a lens that I had when I might have preferred another lens. I think Picasso once said that he wanted to use green in a painting but since he didn’t have it he used red. Perfection is not something I admire. [Laughs]. A touch of confusion is a desirable ingredient.

As you see in the transcript above, Leiter was a huge fan of experimentation and used different focal lengths to discover his visual language and imagery. At a time when using wide angle lenses were suitable for street photography– he went against the grain and used telephoto lenses to compress his images. And through this compression, he could simplify his images and create more distinct geometric shapes.

Takeaway point:

I am not encouraging everyone to go out and buy a 500mm lens for street photography– but I do encourage everyone to experiment with different focal lengths.

Personally I still prefer street photography with wider lenses (35mm, 28mm) but if you are going for a certain look and perspective– you need to use different focal lengths.

So if you are into compression and geometric shapes (Henri Cartier-Bresson used a 50mm most of his entire life) try using a longer lens. Discover your visual imagery through experimentation.

2. Don’t worry about fame

© Saul Leiter

One of the things I find most admirable about Leiter is that he lived a simple life without worrying about fame or recognition for his work. Very similar to Vivian Maier he shot mostly for himself and stored his color slide shots in a box. It wasn’t until the 90’s when he started to print his images did he start getting recognized for his work.

Even though now he is immensely popular and being written into the canon of the “Masters” of street photography, he is still humble about his work and life.

Leiter never cared to be famous for his work, as he shares:

“**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.”

In an interview by David Gibson from In-Public, Leiter shares how even great talent can be ignored in history:

Gibson: Do you consider recognition as a somewhat random occurrence or do you think that true creativity will eventually be given the respect it deserves?

Leiter: The cream does not always rise to the surface. The history of art is a history of great things neglected and ignored and bad and mediocre things being admired. As someone once said “life is unfair.” In the 19th Century someone was very lucky. He or she acquired a Vermeer for $ 12. There are always changes and revisions of the appreciation of art, artists, and photography and writers and on and on. The late art of Picasso is no good but then a revision takes place and then it becomes very good as the art records indicate. Things come and go.

So you could essentially be the most talented photographer, but if history doesn’t play out in your favor– you can easily go ignored.

In a similar vein, he mentions how he believes that to be ignored if a privilege:

“I spent a great deal of my life being ignored. I was always very happy that way. Being ignored is a great privilege. That is how I think I learnt to see what others do not see and to react to situations differently. I simply looked at the world, not really prepared for anything.”

Takeaway point:

In the west, to become rich, powerful, and famous are desirable traits. I can definitely agree that in photography, everyone wants to become a celebrity and have hundreds of thousands of followers, to have exhibitions all around the world, and make a ton of money.

However for Leiter he didn’t care for any of that. Rather, he avoided fame– and lived a simple life for himself. He shot what he enjoyed, not needing external recognition or affirmation from others. He was happy and enjoyed his photography.

At times I wish I could be more recognized and famous for my photography. However a great lesson I learned from Leiter is to not worry about the fame and recognition- and simply shoot for yourself, and be happy.

3. Search for beauty

© Saul Leiter

One of the traits I love about Leiter’s work is that it is very elegant. The soft pastels in his color photography as well as sometimes the intensity highlights the beauty of everyday life. Leiter isn’t a photographer who is looking for the pain and suffering of everyday life. Rather, he looks for the positive and uplifting moments and images of the world:

Q: Color is obviously a big part of your aesthetic, yet I think it sometimes obscures other concerns. For example, the people in your photographs are often hemmed in, fragmented or isolated from one another. Do you see the urban environment as a kind of alienating or isolating entity?

LEiter: I never thought of the urban environment as isolating. I leave these speculations to others. It’s quite possible that my work represents a search for beauty in the most prosaic and ordinary places. One doesn’t have to be in some faraway dreamland in order to find beauty. I realize that the search for beauty is not highly popular these days. Agony, misery and wretchedness, now these are worth perusing.

Takeaway point:

I think as street photographers it is easy to be lured into taking dark, gritty, and gloomy photos. After all, there is a sense of romanticism to the darkness of everyday life– and many photographers in history have been attracted to photographing the homeless, destitute, those addicted to drugs or alcohol, or in depressing situations.

As important as it is to capture the negative aspects of society– it is equally as important to capture the beautiful and positive moments in life.

Leiter with his upbeat and positive attitude certainly shows his life philosophy through his work. His photos are colorful, bright, and joyful. They make the viewer reflect on the wonderful parts of life– in the everyday.

So realize that when you are shooting street photography you don’t need to be in some “faraway dreamland to find beauty.” Look at the life you live, and photograph the beautiful things in your everyday life. Photograph your family, your kids, your friends, your co-workers, the neighborhood you live in, your workplace, around your workplace– and find the positivity and beauty that permeates around you.

4. Learn to see

© Saul Leiter

Nowadays we are often obsessed about cameras, equipment, and lenses when it comes to capturing more compelling images. However the most important aspect we need to nurture and develop is our eyes.

Leiter shares the importance of noticing things you would not normally pay attention to (in order to make a great photograph):

I think I’ve said this before many times—that photography allows you to learn to look and see. You begin to see things you had never paid any attention to. And as you photograph, one of the benefits is that the world becomes a much richer, juicier, visual place. Sometimes it is almost unbearable—it is too interesting. And it isn’t always just the photos you take that matters. It is looking at the world and seeing things that you never photograph that could be photographs if you had the energy to keep taking pictures every second of your life.”

Takeaway point:

I feel that the best street photographers are the ones who are the most observant. The best street photographers notice small details that other photographers tend to look. The best street photographers tend to be curious and inquisitive about the world– and see the world in a unique way.

Know that no matter how boring you think your neighborhood, city, or life is– there is a lot of interesting things to photograph. Even if you live in a suburb, taking photos of the banality of suburban living is fascinating.

Realize how blessed we are with vision and being able to see the world in the richness that we do.

A great way to motivate yourself to shooting more: imagine that you learned that you had a rare eye disease and that by the end of the year you would become totally blind. Would you appreciate seeing the details of your world and life differently? How would you photograph differently? And what would you photograph? What do you find most visually interesting in your life– that you often overlook? Keep this in mind and shoot!

5. Don’t have a philosophy

© Saul Leiter

While I believe that it is important to have a vision and a philosophy when it comes to photography– Leiter would tell me otherwise. Leiter doesn’t have a grand philosophy when it comes to capturing the world around him. He take a more pragmatic approach: he just goes out and photographs what he finds interesting:

Q: Is it fair to say that you were more interested in evoking the character of New York City’s people rather than its architecture?

Leiter: I didn’t photograph people as an example of New York urban something or other. I don’t have a philosophy. I have a camera. I look into the camera and take pictures. My photographs are the tiniest part of what I see that could be photographed. They are fragments of endless possibilities.

Q: Is there a philosophy or outlook that you have tried to communicate in your work?

Leiter: I didn’t try to communicate any kind of philosophy since I am not a philosopher. I am a photographer. That’s it.

Takeaway point:

I think when it comes to street photography– you should follow your personality. If you live in the world of theories and concepts– embrace your philosophy of photography. But if you find yourself more of a pragmatist don’t feel obliged to have a philosophy when it comes to your photography.

Regardless if you have a philosophy or not when it comes to your street photography– the most important thing is to simply have a camera, go out, and capture the world around you. Having a philosophy comes second.

6. Be humble

© Saul Leiter

One of the reasons why I think that Leiter is so greatly admired (besides his photographs) is that he is humble. He doesn’t boast of his accomplishments nor put himself on a pedestal. He lives an ordinary life and doesn’t think of himself as particularly important. He explains by saying:

“I’m sometimes mystified by people who keep diaries. I never thought of my existence as being that important.”

When it comes to ambition, he prefers to be much more low-key as well:

“I have a deep-seated distrust and even contempt for people who are driven by ambition to conquer the world … those who cannot control themselves and produce vast amounts of crap that no one cares about. I find it unattractive. I like the Zen artists: they’d do some work, and then they’d stop for a while.

Leiter encourages all of us to be a lot less serious when it comes to our photography and lives:

“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… Maybe I was irresponsible. But part of the pleasure of being alive is that I didn’t take everything as seriously as one should.

My favorite quote about not worrying about self-admiration involves music and spaghetti:

I am not immersed in self-admiration. When I am listening to Vivaldi or Japanese music or making spaghetti at three in the morning and realize that I don’t have the proper sauce for it, fame is of no use. The other way to put it is that I don’t have a talent for narcissism. Or, to put it yet another way, the mirror is not my best friend.”

Takeaway point:

I think we all should become much more humble in our pursuits and expectations out of life (myself included). We should be humble when we are admired for our work– and not strive to become “successful” but the standards of others.

When I shoot street photography of course I have a strong ambition to capture memorable and meaningful images. However as my buddy Jack Simon says, the thing he always enjoys when shooting on the street is to simply walk around, enjoy the street art, have some nice parties and coffee.

So remember that street photography isn’t a competition in where there are winners and losers. It isn’t a zero-sum game. Rather, be humble in your pursuits– collaborate with other street photographers, and enjoy the experience of shooting on the streets.

7. Be inspired by paintings

© Saul Leiter

One thing that I found fascinating about Leiter is that not only did he photograph his entire life, he also painted quite a bit as well.

When I look at his street photography, I would say it is far less inspired by photography– and more inspired by abstract, surreal, and expressionist painters. In interviews Leiter shares that he does gain a great deal of inspiration from painters – and I think it shows very clearly through his work.

Takeaway point:

As Richard Bram says, don’t simply look at photographers for inspiration. Rather, study art history. See the great work that has been done before photography– and become inspired by that as well as photography. Develop your visual literacy by studying the master painters, and see how you can apply those same elements to your street photography. Composition, framing, use of light and colors are all aspects you can learn from painting.

So along with photography books, buy books on art. Visit museums, galleries, and exhibitions. Visit your local library and borrow as many books on art history that you can. I can guarantee you that this will help improve your photographic vision.

Conclusion

© Saul Leiter

Saul Leiter is inspirational not only through his street photography but his zen-like philosophies of life. We should all learn from him to embrace color, light, and abstractions in our photography– as well as embrace simplicity, humbleness, and detachment from our work and fame.

To see more work from Saul Leiter, you can see his portfolio on In-Public.

Videos

Trailer for “In No Great Hurry

Saul Leiter Interview in Hamburg

Bibliography

Books

Saul Leiter Retrospective ~ $51 USD

A large retrospective of Leiter’s work (nearly 300 pages long). A great bang-for-the buck with Leiter’s work.

Saul Leiter: Early Color ~ $130 USD

One of my favorite monographs on Leiter’s work. Quite expensive– the cheapest used on Amazon is around $130 USD.

Saul Leiter [Steidl] ~ $150 USD

Leiter’s work published by the best publisher in the world, Steidl. If you want to see Leiter’s work in the best print quality, this book is for you.

Saul Leiter (Photofile) ~ $13 USD

A great introduction to Leiter’s work in a pocket-sized and convenient book. The most affordable book you can get by Leiter!

What do you think of Leiter’s work and how has he influenced you? Share your thoughts on his photography (and life philosophy) in the comments below!