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03/03/2020

Saul Leiter, the great pedestrian

American street and fashion photographer Saul Leiter captured the sidewalks and windowfronts like no other. A sharp eye, a master of reflections, a delightful wanderer, he depicted the city through the lens of his own eyes. 
He wandered through the same New York borough for more than half a century.
Through the urban explorations this blog takes me on, every now and then I am forced to face the obvious: some topics must be treated with a little more seriousness, because their subject demands respect. And what could be more important than Saul Leiter’s photography? Amongst the great observers of the urban landscape such as Robert Frank, William Klein, Elliot Erwitt or Cartier-Bresson, for me Saul Leiter stands apart.
 
 
 
 
Slightly on the edge of the sidewalk, visible only through the reflection in a shopfront window (one he was very fond of capturing with his camera). He wandered through the same New York borough for more than half a century, snapping men and women who looked like mannequins, staging mannequins that looked like passers-by.
 
 
 
 

The street was his studio


He was both street photographer and fashion photographer (for magazines Harper’s Bazar and Esquire). He used colour as often as black and white, and excelled at making the image vibrate. The street was his studio, standing as an observer behind a fogged-up window, catching the instant a woman’s step flashed in a mirror, searching for faces in the gap in a fence.
“For him the camera provided an alternate way of seeing, of framing events and interpreting reality. He sought out moments of quiet humanity in the Manhattan maelstrom," writes author Martin Harrison.
 
A discreet person, he enjoyed the anonymity of his wanderings.
“I spent a great deal of my life being ignored. I was always very happy that way. Being ignored is a great privilege. That is how I think I learnt to see what others do not see and to react to situations differently. I simply looked at the world, not really prepared for anything.”
By immersing myself in his photos, I become with Saul a discreet pedestrian, entering into a layer of the city I was unaware of, a fourth dimension to which he has access and whose doors he opens for me.
“I didn’t try to communicate any kind of philosophy since I am not a philosopher. I am a photographer. That’s it.”
 

Photo-mobility aficionado

 
I keep in mind this beautiful description of Saul Leiter’s photos by the author of the article:
“off-center perspectives, compressed spatial dynamics, and a predilection for breaking up the frame in unpredictable and exciting ways.”
This is almost the definition of urban micro-mobility: when one changes the means of travel, one’s perception of the city shifts, the viewpoint slides, the speed adjusts… in the sunshine, in the snow, in the rain… just like Saul Leiter’s subjects.
So let us fearlessly follow this great pedestrian, this photo-mobility aficionado, for whom shoes and a waterproof coat are the essential accessories of a photographer.

Text: Guillaume Desmurs
Photos: Saul Leiter
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