Contextual Research | Saul Leiter

It is difficult to know where to start when attempting to write about Saul Leiter. I became aware of his work a couple of years ago when I wedding photographer friend posted a shelfie of his photography books on social media. I instantly took a screen shot and begun to look at the work of the names of the books.

At the time I didn’t have the photographic literacy to explain my thoughts on his work, all I knew is that I loved it.

At this stage of the MA I have produced a number of portraits, some of which I like, some I don’t. Some I like but think are a little safe and some I’m not sure about and are unsafe. What I do understand is that my work is developing and becoming stronger, however I am now at the stage where I need to think beyond the portrait and sequence phase and engage with the task of visualising the journey element of the project.

I have begun to consider work beyond portraits and to date I have looked at a range of work and projects, many of them with really powerful messages behind them and visualise a story in an authentic manner. What I need to do is to research and take influence from work that excites me as a photographer. In stating this I feel the need to further clarify some of the traits that I find alluring.

Contrast: I am drawn to colour and contrast and see the likes of Stephen Shore, William Eggleston and Saul Leiter the masters of this approach. Leiter’s work particularly speaks to me as I am drawn to the dark tones of the night coupled with lights and bold colours. I see this as a route for my work, and the idea of making semi observational documentary, using textures and light.

Saul Leiter

The image above is an interesting perspective and an avenue that I would like to engage with, the light, dark and colour all working to produce a dirty frame which encompasses a sense of loneliness. As my project develops, it is becoming more apparent that my project has an overarching theme of mental health, and when I look at this image I sense a visual discourse that I believe.

At present I have frequented the route of my project several times, and each time returned disappointed that I have created one dimensional work that I find quite frankly boring. Therefore, the time has come to experiment further. Teich (2016) cites Leiter…

“We live in a world full of expectations,” he said. “And if you have the courage, you ignore the expectations.”

I understand that I should be commenting of the technical quality of his work however Leiter’s comments encourage me to let go of any preconceived ideas of how I should make the work. Of late I have felt that I have been making work based on what I think I should do as opposed to holding on to the freedom I had at the start of the course. As a resolution I will endeavour to produce work that is a synthesis of freedom and an informed photographic literacy. Trusting my ambition in the pursuit of my authentic voice. (Burr 2003) comments on perspective

‘A discourse refers to a set of meanings, metaphors representations, images, stories, statements and so on that in some way together produce a particular version of events. It refers to a particular picture that is painted of an event, person or class of persons, a particular way of representing it in a certain light. If we accept the view… That a multitude of alternative versions of events are potentially available through language, this means that, surrounding any one object, event, person etc. There may be a variety of different discourses, each with a different story to tell about the object in question, a different way of representing it to the world’. (Burr 2003)

Having been pontificating this idea for some time, I feel it is relevant to highlight now as my project develops and comes to life. The mental health theme it has emerged is the central concern at this time, as a result I am required to trust my own method of representing the world as I see it. The work as described by Burr contains a discourse that is representative of my own photographic DNA. Having a project which is now beginning to establish itself, a strong theme and a title that I like, the concerns are emotional and powerful. This is a rigorous process and serves of the heartbeat of the project.

Read (2017) reaffirms the fostering intrinsic motivations ‘As a curator I am looking for what is at the core of the work. Powered by authentic concerns of the photographer’. In making this breakthrough I am in a position to increase the volume of the project and take the engagement to new levels. Read then concludes (2017)

‘The presence of the authentic voice is what lifts the work above the everyday’. And at this stage, and lockdown measures easing, it will be all systems go from here.

Burr, V. (2003) Social Constructionism, Second Edition. Routledge, London.

Read and Simmons (2017)  Photographers and Research, The Role of Research in Contemporary Photographic Practice. Taylor and Francis, New York.

Teich (2016) Photographer Saul Leiter in His Own Words: Believing in the Beauty of Simple Things, [Online] Available at: [Accessed 17th March 2021]

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