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.”

Using Format