Saul Leiter - Seeing is a neglected enterprise

“I’m sometimes mystified by people who keep diaries. I never thought of my existence as being that important.”

Saul Leiter was unique - about as unique as it is possible for a human being to be. 

If I could make just one image as well as Saul Leiter made images throughout his life I would have learned something useful about life.

You will not be surprised to learn that I really rate Mr Leiter’s work - I have, I think, all his books. I also really like the man who passed away at his home in New York City’s East Village on November 26, 2013, leaving behind an immense archive of his life’s work in art. In the New York Times obituary on Leiter, Margalit Fox wrote, “Of the tens of thousands of images he shot—many now esteemed as among the finest examples of street photography in the world—most remain unprinted.”

Aside from his photographs which if you aren’t familiar, may I suggest that you stop reading this and hit the link at the end of this piece immediately, was his ability to reduce the way that he worked and his perspective on life into the most succinct and eloquent observations. There are hundreds of them and they are insightful, funny, wry and above all sharply observant which makes picking a few representative examples difficult because I want to share them all with you. 

“I think when you take a photograph, if it turns out to be something good, there’s a kind of Zen element that takes place. It’s difficult to describe. People talk of controlling, but it’s not true. You can’t control the swirl of reality. If you’re very lucky, from time to time, you do something that is good.” 

“I experimented a lot. Sometimes I worked with a lens that I had when I might have preferred another lens. I think Picasso once said that he wanted to use green in a painting but since he didn’t have it he used red. Perfection is not something I admire. A touch of confusion is a desirable ingredient.”

“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.”

“I don’t have a philosophy. I have a camera. I look into the camera and take pictures. My photographs are the tiniest part of what I see that could be photographed. They are fragments of endless possibilities.”

“I find it strange that anyone would believe that the only thing that matters is black and white. It’s just idiotic. The history of art is the history of colour. The cave paintings had colour…”

“I go out to take a walk, I see something, I take a picture. I take photographs. I have avoided profound explanations of what I do.”


“I didn’t try to communicate any kind of philosophy since I am not a philosopher. I am a photographer. That’s it.”

Stephen Shore’s Modern Instances - this is not a book review

March has been a write off. Both G and I finally caught Covid despite all our care. Fortunately we have had nothing more serious than moderate flue symptoms but unlike flue the recovery from Covid has been very slow. Apart from walking the dogs each day we have spent long periods resting and reading. The enforced rest has given me the time to read some of the books too long unopened on my shelf. One of those is Stephen Shore’s Modern Instances: The Craft of Photography. A Memoir. Shore has been credited as one of the photographers who established colour photography as an art form (1) and has been acknowledged as a major influence on the work of Nan Goldin, Andreas Gursky, Martin Parr, Joel Sternfeld and Thomas Struth (2). To describe Shore’s work as unfathomable would be an understatement. His images can be both deadpan and contemplative, often of banal scenes and objects. His American Surfaces series, for example, was a travel diary made between 1972 and 1973 with photographs of “friends he met, meals he ate, toilets he sat on”. The series was first exhibited at the Light Gallery, New York in 1972. Shot on 35mm film and printed in glossy colour using a high-street Kodak lab, the prints were hung directly onto the gallery wall and fixed with backing tape in a large grid (3). At the time the image content and gallery context were considered too radical with the inevitable bad reception from photography critics. Today, the exhibition is widely acknowledged as representing a key moment in the history of photography. And I now know where Wolfgang Tillmans got the hanging idea.

Stephen Shore has been making images for a very long time, he had his first 35mm camera at the age of 9. I think he must be 75 this year and he’s been working seriously with a camera since the 60’s, so even if his photographs don’t touch you, even if you find them indifferent or banal; with that amount of experience he is going to have some things to say about the craft of photography that are going to be interesting and perhaps even useful. 

Modern Instances is a book that is as much to do with fishing as it has photography.

It is in many ways a memoir as the title suggests, but not in a way that you might expect. It is very much a cerebral scrapbook filled with interactions with people as well as places, things, and a few well placed Shakespearian sonnets. 

By his own admission he seems to have had an innate ability to be in the right place at the right time and as a consequence has met and befriended an astonishing array of well know artists and photographers, including a 3 year stint working with Andy Worhol at the Factory.

It is an insightful read because he talks openly about what was going on in his head, what and who influenced him and what what was driving him.  At the beginning I said that this wasn’t a book review but reading through this is seems to be shaping up into one. So I’ll stop and just say that Modern Instances is essential reading for anyone doing anything visual who struggles with the point or purpose of their practice. It is full of intelligent insights and it is also full of great quotes. I’ll leave you with two of my favourites:

“…. I stood on a street corner in Savannah, Georgia, setting up my camera. I remember recognising that making the picture seemed neither intentional nor intuitive, but more habitual. I realised then that the pictures I had been taking on this short trip were all made almost by rote. I realised that I wasn’t on my edge making work. There wasn’t a sense of “flow”. I saw that for a while the visual questions that kept “arising” for most of the ’70s had stopped. I was making “Stephen Shores”, I was, in a sense, imitating myself. Szarkowski and I once discussed what distinguishes a photograph from an illustration. He said, “an illustration is a picture whose problems were solved before the picture was made”.

“Zen pretty much comes down to three things - everything changes; everything is connected; pay attention.” Credited to Jane Hirshfield.

Stephen Shore’s Modern Instances. The Craft of Photography. A Memoir is available from MACK Books at




Thanks Ken, without you I would never have met David

On Christmas Eve morning I woke up with a nasty rash around the left hand side of my torso which hadn’t been there when I went to sleep. On close inspection the rash followed a line from my navel all the way round my waist and lower back finishing on the base of my spine. I had absolutely no idea what this was or why I had it, but it hurt and my skin around it and across my chest and back had become incredibly sensitive to touch. To anyone who has experienced this condition personally, or known someone who has, they will know from the symptoms I have decribed that my next few weeks were going to be debilitating and unreasonably painful. I had developed shingles. 

For the last three weeks I have lived on the sofa when I’ve not been in bed; experimented with assorted legal opioids in the pursuit of a pain free existence, followed quickly by further experimentation with anything that would help to induce a bowel movement - I have no desire to be indelicate but as anyone will tell you who has taken codeine, or similar opioid based pain killers for any length of time that as certain as night follows day the short term relief that the opioids bring is followed by hours of agony of a different kind, scale and level of personal humiliation - I’ll leave it there …

Too tired to read, in too much pain to do anything useful or distracting standing up I resorted to binging on BBC iPlayer. It took two weeks of rewatching every Scandinavian crime series I could find; finally watching all three series, and all the Christmas Specials, of Gavin and Stacey and discovering that all three of the How to Train Your Dragon films were finally available to watch for free before I began to get bored with the unreality of it all and started searching the iPlayer archive for something that didn’t make me feel that I had just lost an hour that I would never get back - bit like eating overly sweet food. At art college I had been introduced to the Documentary Film Movement: a group of British filmmakers, led by John Grierson, who were influential in British film culture in the 1930s and 1940s. The founding principles of the movement were based on Grierson belief that  documentary films could be used to educate citizens in an understanding of democratic society. Many of the films made by Grierson, Basil Wright, Arthur Elton, Edgar Anstey, Stuart Legg, Paul Rotha and Harry Watt explored the lives of very ordinary people. What made many of these films remarkable was how the sensitivity of the film makers enabled the stories of mundane lives to take on a richness, depth and significance that could so easily have been lost through the lens of a patriarchal camera man. These little, mostly black and white, films described the reality of lives lived between two world wars; how political decisions made in Westminster could with the stroke of a pen erode or destroy ways of life that had been lived for generations. They reveal a world that we have never known, with gentleness, acute observation, humour and art.

Before 1936, the movement  had been part of a single public sector organisation, but by the late 1930s filmmakers were exploring other possibilities for developing documentary film; and by 1937, the movement had evolved into four different production units: GPO, Shell (headed by Anstey), Strand (headed by Rotha) and Realist (led by Wright).
 In 1940, the GPO Film Unit was transferred to the Ministry of Information and renamed the Crown Film Unit. The British government along with industry had finally woken up to the usefulness of the documentary film in the promotion of political and commercial interests. Grierson’s founding principals were being reshaped by the interests of the establishment and the documentary film was fast becoming just another entertainment. The BBC, bless it, picked up the mantle of commissioning editor and producer for experimental documentary film making  and through programmes such as Monitor, and through its editor Hugh Wheldon, created a platform for young artists and film makers to experiment. One of Wheldon’s early talents was Ken Russell and buried in the A to Z list of documentary films on iPlayer is ‘A House in Bayswater’ made by Russell in 1959. 

The problem with TV remotes and lists of instant programmes is that it encourages you (Okay its just me then?) to be lazy and just hit the button before reading the description, which is how I discovered Russell’s film and how I managed to watch the entire thing without knowing that Russell had made it; although after 20 minutes I was beginning to wonder if Ken was behind the camera. Without wanting to spoil it for anyone I would like to point out that what starts out as a seemingly normal black and white documentary: a portrait of a five-storey Edwardian house in Bayswater, London, and of the people who live there, by the 25 minute marker things are beginning to slide dramatically into Russell’s version of reality. What saves it I think is the camera work and the people, all of whom are as they are portrayed, including a very young David Hurn. I didn’t know his work although his name seemed familiar so I looked him up and discovered that David Hurn has been an outstanding documentary photographer and is a member of Magnum. Link here: David Hurn/Magnum What inspired me to write all of this was a quotation of David’s on his Magnum page and one that I would like to share because I think it exemplifies a truth that is so easily forgotten in the pursuit of artistic and personal expression and is particularly significant to anyone who makes photographs: “Life, as it unfolds in front of the camera, is full of so much complexity, wonder, and surprise that I find it unnecessary to create new realities. There is more pleasure, for me, in things as-they-are”.

David Hurn is still working and lives in Wales.

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