The photography book market is now so super-saturated that it’s rare to find one that’s truly stimulating but I think this one comes close. The reason is because to understand photographs some understanding of the photographer is useful, and this is what you get with Forever Saul Leiter.
It’s stuffed full of B&W and colour images supported by quotes from the man himself and an excellent short appraisal by writer and photographer Akiko Otake. Of course Leiter’s colour work is excellent but he was equally good in black and white. When you look at the contact sheets you can see he’s gone through the same process as the rest of us: working a scene, taking any number of images with the hope of capturing ‘the one’. And then undoubtedly rejecting most of them. Interestingly, Otake points out that he rarely engaged with his subjects, preferring to keep his distance. And if they are shot in close-up then often the images are out of focus.
I found myself turning pages quickly because I thought I was looking at an ordinary, somewhat boring, image but then I paused, and looked rather than glanced; and I thought how clever the composition was and wondered how long he had waited for it. You can see his priority was getting the shot and being less concerned about the technical stuff. The blurs and blown highlights don’t seem to matter in the context of the composition. But that’s the secret – it has to be a good composition so that when you look at the image, that’s what you see before anything else. Undoubtedly, his long interest in art and painting, reflected in his painterly colour images, was a strong foundation for his photography. Furthermore, when I looked at the contact sheets in the book I felt I was almost with him, visualising the composition he was waiting for.
I’m a fan and student of juxtaposing photographs and text. The short quotes used in the book not only tell us about the life, beliefs and values of Leiter but also enhance the appreciation of his work. It’s difficult to pick out one quote but I’m taken with what he said in an interview in the last year of his life: “I would try different things. Sometimes I failed and sometimes I didn’t fail. Sometimes something worked out.” Nothing highbrow, not particularly erudite, just a simple, straightforward approach to his work (and probably his life) but with a strong work ethic, not necessarily concerned with pursuing success and displaying remarkable insight. As Otake says, “By reading into his photographs you sense Leiter’s personality – shy, moderate, not pushy, and observant rather than assertive.”
Forever Saul Leiter is an excellent example of the view that if you want to be a better photographer then start by looking at the work – and lives – of other photographers. And if you choose to buy only one book… then Forever Saul Leiter should probably be the one.
I run a series of street photography workshops based specifically on Saul Leiter’s approach (called ‘Inspired by Saul Leiter’). The 2022 programme is now fully booked but I’ll run another series in 2023.