Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Saul Leiter: photographs and the art of not-gardening

I was in Waterstones bookshop today, leafing through a copy of the Photofile book of Saul Leiter's photographs, when I got to thinking.

I own a copy of Saul Leiter's Early Color, which is a hardbound book, and I wanted to see whether there was anything new or different in this smaller Photofile volume.

As I flicked through the book, I thought again about why I like Saul Leiter's photographs. The color is muted and pleasantly warm, and there is a consistency of tone throughout the book, and that is attractive. But that is not of itself enough of a reason to like his photographs. There is something else - and it took me until today to figure out what it is.

There are often not many elements in the photographs and they are quite large, which means that although the subject matter is street life, the photographs do not look cluttered.

But again that is not what I like about the photographs.

Quite often, the background subject matter appears partially covered by the foreground elements. So we have shots of people partly obscured by shutters or doorways or blinds or other people.

But in itself, that is not what I like about the photographs.

And then I thought of a term that is known to nature photographers. They call it 'gardening' and it means removing bits of twig or leaf or paper wrappers or anything that didn't look good in the frame.

And that is what Saul Leiter does not do. He doesn't garden. He doesn't move his body to 'move' obstructing bits out of the way. He sees something he likes and he allows in all the elements that are in front of him - the bits that obscure and the bits that reveal. And the result is that he gets it right.

And I could happily have many of his photographs hanging on the wall where I live - they are pleasant and rewarding and satisfying and interesting to look at.

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