Inspiring Photographer Saul Leiter

Recently, I watched a documentary about the legendary colour photographer, Saul Leiter (1923 – 2013). It’s called “In No Great Hurry: 13 Lessons in Life from Saul Leiter.” Watch the trailer below.
 

“An unassuming man who shunned attention, Saul Leiter photographed on the streets of New York, mostly within a few blocks of his East Village apartment. With their rich layering and swaths of beautiful color, Leiter’s images induced moments of quietude and contemplation amid the bustle and chaos of New York City street life.” – David Walker, PDN News

Saul Leiter’s photography resonates with me deeply. He was a New York City street photographer, who did fashion shoots to earn a living. Yet, he has become known for his impressionistic colour work on the streets of the city. Leiter lived in the same neighbourhood for over sixty years.

According to one article from Photographers Speak, he was a “quiet iconoclast,” working in colour at a time when most fine art photographers worked in black and white. He shot vertically rather than horizontally most of the time. He used telephoto lenses to compress perspective rather than the more typical wide angle for street photography.

Here are a few of my favourite quotes from the film.

“Everything is suitable to be photographed. A photograph of a window covered in raindrops interest me more than a photograph of a famous person.”

“I don’t plan to photograph certain things, I come across them. I enjoy catching certain moments. I tend to react to what I find.”

“There are the things that are out in the open and then there are the things that are hidden, and life has more to do, the real world has more to do with what is hidden, maybe. You think?”
 

Below are links to some wonderful articles about Leiter and the quotes that stood out to me.

 
An Interview with Saul Leiter from Photographers Speak

“He had a distinct visual grammar that featured off-center perspectives, compressed spatial dynamics, and a predilection for breaking up the frame in unpredictable and exciting ways.”

“I admired a tremendous number of photographers, but for some reason I arrived at a point of view of my own.” ~ Saul Leiter

“I never felt the need to do what everyone else did. And I wasn’t troubled by the fact that other people were doing other things.” ~ Saul Leiter

“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.” ~ Saul Leiter

7 Lessons Saul Leiter Has Taught Me About Street Photography by Eric Kim

“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.” ~ Saul Leiter

A Casual Conversation with Saul Leiter – Time Magazine

“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.” ~ Saul Leiter

Postscript: Saul Leiter (1923-2013) via The New Yorker

“The overriding emotion in his work is a stillness, tenderness, and grace that is at odds with the mad rush of New York street life.”

“The content of Saul Leiter’s photographs arrives on a sort of delay: it takes a moment after the first glance to know what the picture is about. You don’t so much see the image as let it dissolve into your consciousness, like a tablet in a glass of water.”

A Short Interview with Saul Leiter via In-Public

Obituary, Saul Leiter, Legendary Colour Artist

Here are a few of my favourite Saul Leiter images – Daily Serving, Walk with Soames, and Postmen 1952 – or watch this 5 minute meditative slideshow set to the music of Miles Davis.

Videos

There are many videos online with Saul Leiter. Here are a couple.

Saul Leiter on Vimeo – a 14 minutes interview from a year before his death

Saul Leiter in Conversation with photography critic, Vince Aletti
 

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My Gift from the Sea

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I’m at the sea – the Atlantic Ocean, specifically. Water, and especially the ocean, draws me like a magnet.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s classic book, Gift from the Sea, has been my companion. I’m re-reading it for the umpteenth time and this time it touched me in a new, profound way.

Lindbergh’s gift came from the shells on the beach and what they taught her about relationships, particularly the different stages of a marital relationship.

She also talks about the aging process, and how many get stuck in their 40’s and 50’s in an eternal search for lost youth. Yet, this new stage should be a time of “second flowering,” in a whole new way.

“A new stage of living when, having shed many of the physical struggles, the worldly ambitions, the material encumbrances of active life, one might be free to fulfill the neglected side of one’s self. One might be free for growth of mind, heart, and talent; free at last for spiritual growth.”

This is the stage I’ve found myself in the past few years, as my kids make their way in the world and I build a life and business beyond mothering.
 

What is my gift from the sea?

 
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“The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, too greedy, or too impatient. To dig for treasures shows not only impatience and greed, but lack of faith. Patience, patience, patience, is what the sea teaches. Patience and faith. One should lie empty, open, choiceless as a beach – waiting for a gift from the sea.” ~ Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Gift from the Sea

The quote above describes my gift very well. It’s in the ebb and flow of the tide, where we find the treasures.

The edge of the sea – where water meets the land – is where one sees the ebb and flow. As I watched the waves coming in and going back out, I noticed that they do both at the same time. As water is pulled back into the sea, a new wave is coming in over top of it.

It’s a never-ending cycle – the rhythm of life.

The sea deposits treasures at our feet and then takes them back out again. One has to be paying close attention to see those treasures as they come or they’ll soon be gone and we’ll have missed them.

This is what I’ve been trying to do over the past few years, living a contemplative life through photography. What’s made all the difference is paying attention to the treasures that come into my life and either appreciating them and letting them go or acting on them while they’re here.

I’ve noticed that the best opportunities and experiences have come to me, rather than me seeking them. For example, I was asked to do a contemplative photography workshop while attending a workshop on contemplative poetry. I seized the opportunity.

This does not mean being passive. I have to actively follow my instincts in terms of what I do and notice the treasures as they appear. They’re everywhere, just waiting to be acknowledged.
 

How many more might I have missed?

 

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The Art of Doing Nothing

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“I want to learn to do nothing. Be empty of attachment to things. To allow things simply to be, without my needs and projections.” ~ Natalie Goldberg, Long Quiet Highway

Doing nothing is not easy for me.

It’s not that I’m constantly physically active – far from it. I’m not a doer, but I am a thinker. What’s hard for me is to have my mind do nothing.

Yet, I firmly believe that cultivating a state of nothingness – which to me, means being totally present, without preconceived ideas or expectations, is extremely worthwhile.
 

It’s the state where creativity and right action is seeded.

 
Just as the ground in winter seems to be dormant, we know that it’s actually preparing the way for new growth. The same goes for the mind and body.

As usual, I think about how photography can teach me to do nothing. Last week, this article from National Geographic, What Does Nothing Look Like?, drew my attention.

Photographer Murray Fredericks visited Greenland over the years 2010 to 2013 and photographed “nothing.” Take a look at his amazing photographs.

“What I’m really fascinated with is the psychological impact of a photograph. Why does a landscape image have such an effect on people? Even when it’s an image of nothing.” ~ Murray Fredericks, National Geographic

Perhaps the answer to his question is that nothingness is so pregnant with possibility. His photographs make us pause and actually feel something. The paradox is that they are not really of nothing. We just don’t normally consider bare land, space, and light to be “something.”

Doing nothing might also help in our relationships, to others and ourselves. In his article, The Disease of Being Busy, Omid Safi says:

“I want my kids to be dirty, messy, even bored — learning to become human. I want us to have a kind of existence where we can pause, look each other in the eye, touch one another, and inquire together: Here is how my heart is doing? I am taking the time to reflect on my own existence; I am in touch enough with my own heart and soul to know how I fare, and I know how to express the state of my heart.”

If we take the time to practice doing nothing, maybe we’ll find our heart, or the heart of someone else.

How do we practice doing nothing?

* We could actually pause and do nothing. Start with five minutes and just be and observe without judgment. This could develop into a full blown meditation practice.

* Practice photographing nothing (or space or light) like Murray Fredericks does. Or, photograph nature doing nothing, like the birds above. They can teach us how to be.

* Take a daily rest. Again, just five minutes will do. Lie down. Close your eyes and let go of thoughts.
 

Is this something you find hard to do? Do you see the value in doing nothing?

 

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