I recently purchased All About Saul Leiter an extremely good value overview of the career of the New York photographer. It’s a great book, not a large beautifully printed book, but a ‘keep-in-the-camera-bag-kind-of-a-book’, that due to its low price you don’t mind getting scuffed and coffee stained. It’s my kind of book and includes many of my favourite Leiter images particularly his black and white personal photographs.
Looking through the book I started to question just why I enjoyed looking at his work so much and what it was about his images that I find so inspiring. Then I noticed a theme developing within the images that I found most intriguing.
I was travelling through his images not just around them. I was on a journey that drew me into his world, traversing compositional layers, of framing and subject matter. His images contain multiple narratives that suggest rather than explain what the nature of the relationship is between the photographer and the character or characters within the frame. We don’t really know what’s happening but we go with Leiter on this. He leaves us with more questions than answers and doesn’t see to feel the need to explain anything in the titles for his images. All of this appeals to me.
If you know the work of Saul Leiter this will come as no great revelation. In fact if you have any interest in photographic composition you will be well aware of the use of depth of focus and image as a photographic device just as it has been a dominant theme within painting for many years. But sometimes I think we forget the importance of ‘what can be’ over the simplicity of ‘what is’.
Leiter’s images are complex, they demand thought. They question our understanding of what we are looking at and suggest that we create our own narratives for the characters we see. Are Barbara and J (see above) lovers, friends, sisters? Why has Barbara turned her back on J? And what is the significance of the flowers in the foreground if any?
These are the kind of photographs that demand my attention over those that rely on a flat objective documentation to deliver their narrative. I like a little soul, some emotion, some ambiguity. I like some rawness, some raggedy edges. I don’t want perfection I want an image to balance on the edge of failing. Just as I find perfect studio music production technically impressive but emotionally cold I like my photography to clearly show the unique thumbprint of its creator even if that means including a sense of frailty and of the accomplished amateur. I get this from Leiter and the invitation he provides with his images to enter his world.
This sense of travel has been at the forefront of my photographic thinking recently.
Whilst watching the brilliant and iconic D.A. Pennebaker’s Bob Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back recently I was immediately struck by Pennebaker’s own use of compositional layering. I immediately grabbed my smartphone and started to photograph the television screen (see above). Grainy, black and white footage caught ‘on the fly’ in difficult lighting conditions, where composition becomes the foundation of a visual language that both carries and delivers the narrative from multiple perspectives. Just the way that Saul Leiter worked, and just like Leiter, Dylan has never felt the need to provide ‘answers’ or non-ambiguous narratives.
Seeing the stills from Don’t Look Back and spending time with Leiter’s very personal black and white images has encouraged me to pick up my analogue 35mm camera again after a twenty-year hiatus. I have started shooting film again and believing in the serendipity of chance, the power of the grain and the revelatory nature of chemicals. In short I have returned to the photography and image-making that first inspired me to create photographs. Images that take risks, that force me to experiment with composition and to go further than the documentation of the obvious. Once again I am looking to create ambiguous images that reject the precise nature of the digital format. I am not denying that precision but I am certainly going back to my roots to try and find some of the soul that I think I may have misplaced.
As Bob Dylan put it, “Lies that life is black and white spoke from my skull, I dreamed.
Romantic facts of musketeers foundationed deep, somehow. Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now”.
Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Focal Press 2014) and The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Focal Press 2015). His next book New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography will be published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2019.
© Grant Scott 2019