On the Colour Work of Saul Leiter

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Saul Leiter’s photographs are of the rhythms that lie within the delicacy of the everyday, his vision, as decisive, as his colours, fluid. Raj Lalwani looks back.

Words elude when one tries to piece together the work of Saul Leiter, for his photographs are much like a mirage, like visual apparitions that tease, but don’t tell. His photos elude in the fact that they allude, in that they, in their use of dreamy colour and suggested subject matter, are a lot like free verse, reminding us of the familiar in unimaginably unfamiliar ways.

His genius is that he eludes, that one cannot pin him down. Colourist, sensualist, romanticist. Paintings, photographs. Painterly photographs. Painted-on photographs. But like all great pioneers, Degas, Vuillard, Matisse and Bonnard being his own heroes, Saul Leiter was someone who relentlessly continued to wander on the peripheries of tradition, to find his own path.

A subject walks into the frame, much like the keys coming in, in a jazz song. Just that the subject isn’t really the subject, as it fuses itself amidst a series of intersecting visual planes. Light passes through glass, and water runs over, the initial subject breaking itself into multiple reflections, each presenting a distorted view. Like a musician experiencing an inspired spell of genius, improvising upon the original melody. Leiter’s photos are often about interplay, where the elements entwine into seamlessness. Like a bunch of musicians, each one on their own trip, coming together in a melange of play, of conflict and compromise, construct and confluence. Like jazz.

His use of expired Kodachrome wasn’t always by choice, but the weathering of the emulsion resulted in a weathering of colour, the film having lost some of the extremities of the colour scale, hues blending into impressionism. The film slow, thus depth, diffused, his fondness for the vagaries of weather also showing up in his subject matter, with rain and snow dipping the colours further. It was colour, as he had once said, that wasn’t meant to smack people in the head.

Leiter is a citygazer, one whose remarkable control over craft is laced with unbridled affection for a limited set of subjects, set within a remarkably limited geography, a majority of his work photographed in the span of a mere few blocks. One can almost imagine his daily walks, not looking for anything in particular, but seeing what can be. Windows and canopies, mirrors and windshields, blinking lights, refracting light, lone bystanders and umbrellas passing by. All recurring motifs in Saul Leiter’s photos, sometimes, occurring so often, that you wonder how he manages to make new music, each time. There isn’t much these pictures seem to say, and certainly none that Saul wishes to say, wary of conversations that spoke of why he does what he does. To him, mysterious things have happened in familiar places, much like the play of mystery with familiarity that happens within his frame.

Composing radically, almost rudely, the eccentric manner in which he obfuscates things that we expect to see, or relegates them to an extreme corner, even, is accompanied a surprising sense of fragility. Not very surprising, then, that after the publishing of Early Color, Irving Penn sent him a handwritten note, citing the work’s tenderness and indirection.

Subjects are seen through glass, through lace, through foliage and haze, in ways that we have come across, but forgotten. The endless, seemingly accidental rearrangement of doors, windows and other things familiar, dig within our world of perception and memories. Like a series of enquiries, questions asked by the picture, and ones asked by those who view it. What are we looking at? Why are we looking at it? What do we see when we see beyond what we’re looking at? You sense it, but yearn for a glimpse. Bit by bit, window by window, we are looking at a world of dreamy nostalgia, where an otherwise monotonous urbanscape transforms into a mirage of memories.

For New York isn’t the same, one may lament after seeing these photos. But Saul Leiter’s vision continued to remain remarkably unwavering, even in the photos he shot right up to his passing, in the winter of 2013. The world may have changed, but he continued to discover a soft, subdued sense of the romantic, within the grime of the everyday. Almost as if he was the only one who could really see New York as that. As if there existed a parallel city in his head, invisible to us all. Seeing, as he said, being a neglected enterprise. These aren’t photos of big flourishes, of decisive moments, but those of indecisiveness, of the fleeting and the ephemeral, of the in betweens. The lack of momentousness lending its own share of poetry, the miracle, lying within the insignificance of the poignancy. Like his nuanced use of colour, his subject matter, even in his early black and white work, was nuance itself. A rush, a glance, a touch, a dance, the minuteness of his vision, creating a city of stars, that seemed to shine just for him.

Leiter was using colour as far back as 1948, three decades before Eggleston’s fabled show at MoMA, which is often referred to as the pioneering attempt to use colour as a serious practice within the medium. Saul’s work only came out during the 90s, and was published as a book in 2006, which forced a reevaluation of the history of colour photography.

All photographs courtesy Saul Leiter Foundation, first published in Better Photography.

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