“The cream does not always rise to the surface. The history of art is a history of great things neglected and ignored and bad and mediocre things being admired.”
By David Gibson, brought to ASX by iN-PUBLiC, May, 2013
DG: The Art Historian, Max Kozloff describes your work as ‘more soulful than many’ other photographers. Do you think this particular word is more appropriate than say just street photographer? What label if any would you apply to your photography?
SL: I don’t apply labels to my photographs. I’d much rather have Max Kozloff do that. He’s much better at understanding and describing what I do. He once said that I’m not really a photographer I just use photography for my own purpose. I’m not sure what he meant but I like the sound of it.
DG: Your ‘early colour’ is very distinctive in look – it is’ old colour’ like the work of Helen Levitt yet you seem very comfortable using digital cameras which normally have a different ‘now look’. Are you ever concerned about the way colour has changed?
SL: I like using digital cameras. They make photography sometimes too easy. At different times things are different. The history of photography is a history of changes. If one has a sense of color it manages to survive the changes. That’s it.
DG: You have a vast body of work yet you are mostly known for a core set of images. Are there still rich seams to be mined in your old work which have unseen gems?
SL: Yes, Margit and I found recently a group of things which are to be shown by Roger Szmulewicz in Antwerp. I believe they are rather nice and can hold up and do not need to apologize. It is sometimes true actually of many photographers who don’t know what they did and then one discovers good things. The history of photography keeps changing as one learns more about hidden and unknown things.
“I don’t apply labels to my photographs. I’d much rather have Max Kozloff do that. He’s much better at understanding and describing what I do.”
DG: How aware are you of contemporary photographers, are there any young / youngish photographers that impress you?
SL: I think a lot of good things are being done now. The photography world is not coming to an end. Sometimes the New York Times reproduces beautiful photographs probably done by digital cameras. I am constantly running into good things done by young people.
DG: Do you consider recognition as a somewhat random occurrence or do you think that true creativity will eventually be given the respect it deserves?
SL: The cream does not always rise to the surface. The history of art is a history of great things neglected and ignored and bad and mediocre things being admired. As someone once said “life is unfair.” In the 19th Century someone was very lucky. He or she acquired a Vermeer for $ 12. There are always changes and revisions of the appreciation of art, artists, and photography and writers and on and on. The late art of Picasso is no good but then a revision takes place and then it becomes very good as the art records indicate. Things come and go.
DG: Are there any particular photographers that you consider undervalued or neglected?
SL: I think I am not an art critic. There are endless examples of work that are unknown that become known and appreciated. I am afraid this is the case for many. I am 89 and I know what I’m talking about – sometimes.
“The history of photography is a history of changes… The photography world is not coming to an end.”
DG: You knew Eugene Smith quite well, who arguably had a heavy intense approach to his work. Your approach seems very light, even carefree in comparison. Would you agree with this?
SL: I think Eugene is one of the great photographers in the history of photography. His way of telling a story in photography was unique. He was committed to using photography to make things better for others. Because of what he did in the story of the mid-wife a hospital was created. I am a different kind of photographer. Others will have to judge its value. Is it too light? Is it concerned with beauty? I understand it is admired by some people but not by everyone.
Photographs by Saul Leiter. Introduction by Martin Harrison.
Steidl / Howard Greenberg Gallery, Gottingen, 2011
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(All rights reserved. Text @ iN-PUBLiC. Images @ the Estate of Saul Leiter, courtesy of the Howard Greenberg Gallery NYC.)