Photographer Saul Leiter is a fascinating case study for many experienced and budding photographers. It’s well known that also did many painted photos. This fusion of the mediums can be observed today with various different types of photography. Some of it involves intentional camera movement, while other photographers like Tarryn Goldman go all out and make their images look like paintings. Saul passed a little over a decade ago, and his work is still appreciated today. At the Howard Greenberg Gallery in NYC, there’s an exhibition of his work on display until February 10th, 2024. If you’re intrigued by this post, we recommend that you stop by there to see more of his work in person.
All images by Saul Leiter. Provided to the Phoblographer with permission on behalf of the Howard Greenberg Gallery.
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Use Color to Lead the Eye Around a Scene
Saul often used color very specifically in a scene. Like Steve McCurry does, he also tries to work with only three basic colors in his photographs. The lead image shows us black and white — which can pretty much be eliminated as negative space — only to have us concentrate on the red umbrella. In the image above, we also see the same pattern mixed in with the color of the man’s skin.
The red specifically stands out in the scene to make our eyes travel to those parts of the image. If you’re viewing the image as a whole upon first viewing, then your eye can start almost anywhere in the frame and be lead around. But if you’re viewing the image while scrolling down on a website or app, then you’ll probably view the photo from top to bottom. In either case, your mind will stop and pay attention to the reds in the scene if you’re not mindlessly scrolling past.
Leiter’s photographs are unique in their seemingly fleeting nature. The tones are warm, the focus is soft, and the composition is painterly. In “Snow“, a photograph from 1960, a man is visible through a frosted pane that has been partially wiped, giving a somewhat clear view of the man. His lower half is obscured by streaks and frost. A yellow truck sits across the street, and to the left of the man in the midground is a person completely obscured by the frost. This photograph could easily have been a painting that would have adorned the wall of a museum.Through the Lens: A Look Back at Saul Leiter
In 2024, we should all try to stop mindlessly scrolling and fight the brain drain. It’s otherwise a massive disservice to ourselves and modern art.
Different Shades of Color
Peruse through Saul’s work, and you’ll see that much of it also uses different light intensities on colors. If you’re editing a photograph, then saturating one color over another can greatly change how it’s percieved. So too can adjusting the luminance. The two are different things as saturation turns a color from grey to very vivid. Luminance, on the other hand, adds in brightness or darkness. It’s the difference between the look of a dead or sprightly red rose.
Softness is Better Than Sharp
Photographers these days are very obsessed with sharpness. But there are many of us who embrace using things like Glimmerglass and Pro Mist filters. These tend to soften the image for a stylized look. Saul’s color images are very soft. Sure, this can be attributed somehow to the gear at the time. But there’s also still a very painterly aspect to them. Humans are so at ease with paintings because they represent a dreamy rendition of reality. They aren’t reality but more of the artist’s interpretation of the moment. We get this very much through Saul’s images as well. At times, it looks like you’re peering at the world through a dirty windowpane. These ideas are much different from what we see in every day media consumption, and so they appeal to our more artistic and calmer side.