Exhibition: Saul Leiter

Unofficial OCA study visit, The Photographer’s Gallery, London

10th February 2015


I’ve been a fan of Leiter since I discovered the documentary In No Great Hurry (Leach 2012), shortly before he died. He’s a fantastic example of my theory that ‘good people’ take good photographs – he came across as light-hearted, humble and utterly bemused by the belated attention – which is wholly deserved: whilst he wasn’t a total unknown à la Vivian Maier, he was definitely unsung.

He was a pioneer of colour photography in the 1950s, a couple of decades before Eggleston’s supposed New Colour Photography broke through. Leiter combined street shooting with a painterly aesthetic, finding a dreamlike beauty in the everyday and bringing abstract expressionism to the New York streets that everyone else saw in gritty black and white.

It’s a well-curated selection that features enough of the ‘greatest hits’ whilst simultaneously shining a light on his lesser-known work. A surprising chunk of space is devoted to his early black and white output. Whilst a handful of these bring to mind other photographers (Friedlander, Cartier-Bresson), what struck me about most was how identifiably Leiter they are. Even with colour absent, his signature motifs – reflections, windows, rain, people framed by street furniture and so on – are all there.

A painter with a camera

Leiter identified himself as a painter more than a photographer, which is either overly modest or delusional, as his photography is much more accomplished that his painting. His experiments in merging the two were of some interest; the over-painting of nudes in particular was a successful style. What came across in the best of these was the underlying composition being undeniably photographic no matter how much paint he applied; it’s almost as if one is looking at a photograph and a painting at the same time.

Overpainted nudes, Saul Leiter

The Leiter look

The stars of the show were the classic Leiter shots that attracted me in the first place: the strong colours, the ethereal aesthetic, the other-worldly use of mirrors, steamy windows, rain, umbrellas, street signs. I like the way he saw the world, with a painter’s eye for form, light and of course colour. There may not always be a lot of depth to his work – he once said “I don’t have a philosophy, I have a camera” – yet they bear repeated viewing.


One of the aspects of such impressionistic art that really appeals to me is that it gives the viewer something to do – the mind needs to take the visual information provided and try to make some sense of it, so it feels more like a collaboration between the artist and the audience than a more indexical image.

Leiter managed to capture the essence of a scene rather than a forensically sharp document. These scenes existed in life, but it took Leiter to see them, and to know where to stand and when to press the shutter (and to load his camera with the right kind of out-of-date film…)

Various 1950s works, Saul Leiter

A key stylistic element in his work is the use of some kind of veil or barrier between camera and subject: windows, mirrors, rain, steam, mist, snow, umbrellas. Even his fashion work broke with norms by often obscuring the subject’s face. This comes across as possibly an unconscious response to his own introversion or wish for ‘invisibility’; one gets a sense of a shy observer peeking, but not entering, into other worlds.

Compositional traits

One aspect of Leiter’s work that stood out to me was his preference for the vertical ratio; he used this format much more than a lot of photographers. Was this another influence from painting? I guess more often than not a painter’s canvas on an easel is in portrait ratio? (correct me if this is wrong). It wasn’t Leiter but another photographer, Ralph Gibson, who attempted to articulate a rationale for vertical format: the eyes are horizontal so landscape ratio is more natural – but what if you want your images to not look natural…?

Coupled with this portrait orientation, Leiter often chose quite unusual compositions, placing items of most focus at edges, selecting partial crops of subjects, adding in a secondary point of interest and so on. He followed no conventional rules of composition yet created distinctive images that draw the eyes in.

Back when I first discovered Leiter and got the Saul Leiter: Retrospective book (Taubhorn & Woischnik 2012) I made notes on what words sprang to mind as I absorbed his images, and I’ve just dug these notes out to revisit them in the light of the exhibition:

geometry – contrast – abstract – colours blocks – shape – simplicity – framing – impressionistic – mist – reflection – unusual focus – sense of mystery – abstract

I think these first impressions still stand. As I noted at the time, that’s quite an intriguing set of responses to what is basically a set of New York street scenes. It’s hard to think of anyone else that would have seen what Leiter saw.


It was good to see this show with other OCA students (Jayne Kemp, Richard Brown, Carol Street, Sarah-Jane Field, Catherine Banks and Holly Woodward) as it gave us an opportunity to discuss the photos while we stood in front of them – it’s my first meetup of this kind and I found having people to bounce thoughts off was really valuable.

OCA study buddies

In summary, this was an exhibition that I was very much looking forward to and it did not disappoint in any respect.


http://thephotographersgallery.org.uk/images/Saul_Leiter_intro_HR_56a0cb9c434c5.pdf (accessed 10/02/2016)

Taubhorn, I and Woischnik, B. (2012). Saul Leiter: Retrospective. Hamburg: Kehrer Verlag

In No Great Hurry: 13 Lessons in Life with Saul Leiter. (2012) Directed by Tomas Leach


Research point: Diane Arbus

My introduction to Arbus was my first reading of Clarke (1997), and I was bemused at how much he was able to read into a couple of her images (1997: 28-30). Over time though, learning more about how to read photographs, and the wider context of her work, I began to understand her enduring mystique. Later in the book Clarke uses the memorable phrase: “Collectively, her photographs suggest an overwhelming sense of angst and loneliness.” (1997: 121).

Seeking the flaws

Arbus first achieved recognition photographing what she called ‘freaks’, people on the edges of society for reasons of deformity, sexual proclivity, eccentricity or some other Otherness. They were victims, first of life and then of Arbus’ camera. By her own admission she was drawn to her subjects not so much for their physical appearance but for what she believed must have been going on inside their heads.

A popular quotation of hers (reproduced in Liz Jobey’s Arbus essay in the Sophie Howarth book Essays on Remarkable Photographs (2005) is: “I really believe there are things nobody would see if I didn’t photograph them.” (2005: 70) – and she didn’t mean physical details. She was looking for what John Szarkowski called “the unique interior lives of those she photographed” (Howarth 2005: 72).

Where I believe Arbus started taking her world-view away from a humanist interest and into a voyeuristic plane was when she turned her camera away from obvious ‘freaks’ and towards more (nominally) ‘normal’ members of society. Even with people lacking obvious trauma she gravitated towards what she found ‘wrong’ with them: “You see someone on the street, and essentially what you notice about them is the flaw.” (Sontag 1977: 32).

Jobey’s chapter in Essays on Remarkable Photographs is an examination of the 1966 Arbus image A young Brooklyn family going for a Sunday outing, NYC. The photograph is a typical Arbus portrait in many respects. An air of melancholy hangs over the family; the son is mentally disabled; the mother looks disappointed with life; the father looks vulnerable, downtrodden; only the babe-in-arms isn’t judged by Arbus’ lens. She subverts the cliché of the happy family portrait by depicting them looking anything but.

A young Brooklyn family going for a Sunday outing, NYC, 1966 – Diane Arbus
A young Brooklyn family going for a Sunday outing, NYC, 1966 – Diane Arbus

Jobey quotes Arbus in a phrase that summarises a theme in her work: “[…] there’s a point between what you want people to know about you and what you can’t help people knowing about you” (Howarth 2005: 72) – and this is what she exploits. She captures the heartbreaking sadness of a family trying to put on a brave face to the world, and failing.

The image included in the course notes, A child playing with toy hand grenades, is perhaps the best (worst) example of Arbus’ anti-humanist world-view and approach. With carnival ‘freaks’ the ‘flaw’ is self-evident; with her portraits of so-called ‘normal people’ she sought and magnified their flaws; but here was a regular young boy playing, in a single frame pulling a creepy face and looking sinister. This isn’t a ‘flaw’ or something that the boy is trying hide from the world; there is no ‘unique interior life’ being revealed here, it’s a momentary expression. Arbus misleadingly represents the boy as a ‘freak’, which may have fitted in with her view of the world, but I think in this instance crossed a line.

A child playing with toy hand grenades – contact sheet – Diane Arbus
A child playing with toy hand grenades – contact sheet – Diane Arbus

The course notes ask: Why might Arbus have selected this particular image?

I think this question is broadly answered above in the discussion of Arbus’ flaw-seeking approach to life. A deeper question is: Why this negative world-view in the first place?

Sontag posits the theory that it was a rebellion against her affluent, comfortable upbringing: “Arbus’ interest in freaks expresses a desire to violate her own innocence, to undermine her sense of being privileged, to vent her frustration at being safe.” (Sontag 1977: 43).

A variant explanation is underpinned by the idiom (usually credited to Minor White) “All photographs are self-portraits“. Maybe Arbus saw herself as a ‘freak’ and was compelled to capture that in others, either as self-validation or self-loathing. As with Francesca Woodman, her suicide simultaneously adds credence to the authenticity of her despair, and robs us of any definitive explanation.


The research point concludes with asking us to discuss the Daniel Oppenheimer quote:

“Arbus, perhaps more than any other photographer before and after, forces us to question the morality of photography. What is it that we’re doing when we take a picture, and what gives us the right?”

I do agree with this statement. It comes back to the ‘gap between how people think they look and how they actually look’. It’s the closest I think photography gets to the primitive myth of the camera taking your soul; it doesn’t take your soul, but it can allow people to see inside it.

When you consent to someone taking your photograph, your assumption (hope) is that they will make you look good; in a lot of cases you might be disappointed if you look less attractive than you imagine yourself to be; it takes a photographer such as Arbus to specifically seek to make you look bad.

To take Oppenheimer’s two questions and answer them from Arbus’ imagined point of view:

  • What is it that we’re doing when we take a picture?
    • Holding up people’s flaws for public scrutiny
  • What gives us the right?
    • Nothing; maybe we just took it and didn’t have the right

A way of seeing the world

One of the enlightening realisations over the course of my studies is that admiring the work of a particular photographer transcends finding their individual images pleasing, it becomes admiring the way they see the world – literally. You appreciate what aspects of life moving in front of them they chose to freeze in a rectangle for future perusal.

This notion extends beyond those artists whose work you like, as you can have a reaction against a photographer precisely because you don’t like the way they see the world. This is my take on Arbus. I can appreciate and intellectually admire her world-view and how successfully she projected it into her work, but that doesn’t make me like the pictures or that world-view.

I’m glad that these images exist; I’m glad someone took them; I’m glad someone took the then-transgressive step of helping to move photography beyond notions of beauty and into something more profound – but I have no empathy with her world-view, no intention to replicate her style or approach, no enjoyment in looking at her pictures outside of the context of study.


Clarke, G. (1997) The Photograph: A Visual and Cultural History. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Howarth, S. (ed.) (2005) Singular Images: Essays on remarkable photographs. London: Aperture.

Sontag, S. (1977) On Photography. London: Penguin.

http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/biography/arbus.html (accessed 16/01/16)

Photographer: Alfred Stieglitz

As suggested I watched the documentary Alfred Stieglitz: The Eloquent Eye (1999).

It was a highly interesting overview of one of the giants of photography who I am slightly embarrassed to not have known quite enough about until now, and for that I am very grateful for the course notes for pointing out the film. However…


For the life of me I can’t work out why Stieglitz is the first photographer mentioned in a section entitled Social documentary. My impression of Stieglitz, completely borne out (and hugely strengthened) by the film, was always of the leading proponent of photography as art, and in this respect wonder why he was introduced in this section of the course and not the Fine art chapter. It’s almost as if the course author has laid some sort of trap to see if students are paying attention…!?

Two images are included in the notes to characterise Stieglitz as a social documentarian: The Terminal, from 1893, purportedly illustrating the harsh conditions of an impoverished area of New York in the winter, and The Steerage from 1907, showing the lower classes huddled on the deck of a ship, separated from the higher class passengers in the finer parts of the vessel.

However the film and wider reading make clear that in both instances (quoting Stieglitz’s own writings) he was much more concerned with the aesthetics of the image than the social conditions. In the case of The Steerage, his stated eureka moment was to be entranced by the combination of the shapes and the human feelings – he saw formalist art first and social commentary very much second.

In The Photograph (1997) Graham Clarke describes The Steerage thus:

“There is no social or documentary concern. Stieglitz saw a picture of ‘shapes’, not of human figures, and concentrated on an abstract pattern which for him suggested the feeling he had about ‘life’. The abject condition of the figures in steerage is completely ignored.” (Clarke 1997: 168)

The father of modern photography

Setting aside the category error of his inclusion in Social documentary, I found the Stieglitz story to be fascinating. By coincidence I am slowly working my way through Geoff Dyer’s The Ongoing Moment (2012) which currently has long sections on Stieglitz, his disciples and his influence. The Eloquent Eye film added enormously to my knowledge of him.

I wasn’t aware until now how influential he was in both promoting photography as art and promoting modern art generally. He was a rebellious, anarchistic and impatient, both as a practitioner and as a talent-spotter. He brought the works of Rodin, Matisse and Picasso to the USA, he published the first of Gertrude Stein’s writing, he started a magazine called Camera Work then infuriated photography fans by filling it with paintings, sculptures and drawings.

By the time his work was done, photography was finally sitting on something like equal terms with art, or at least with modern art. What fascinates me is that he did this not just by pushing the envelope with regards to photography itself, but also by embracing the interplay between photography and other art forms – perceptively identifying and encouraging what styles such as impressionism, cubism and pictorials owed to photography. In On Photography (1979), Susan Sontag expands on the influence that photography had on painting, quoting Stieglitz’s writing in Camera Work in 1909 that “the impressionist painters adhere to a style of composition that is strictly photographic” (Sontag 1979: 92).

He pushed boundaries throughout his life and career, and it seemed that whenever public opinion finally caught up with his tastes, he had got bored and moved onto something else; ever the contrarian, his eye was always seeking ‘the new’ (for some reason he put me in mind of John Peel and his approach to music… must be my age).


I am indebted to this opening part of the course notes for allowing me to fill in a major gap in my photographic historical knowledge! I just still can’t get my head round why they included this in the documentary section (rant over now).


Alfred Stieglitz: The Eloquent Eye, YouTube (accessed 15/12/2015)

Clarke, G. (1997) The Photograph: A Visual and Cultural History. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dyer, G. (2012) The Ongoing Moment. London: Canongate.

Sontag, S. (1979) On Photography. London: Penguin.