Last week as I was walking across Hester Street in Manhattan I glanced into an open shop door. Standing in the stark black rectangle was a small boy spotlit by the low afternoon sunlight and holding a balloon twisted into the shape of a tall red tulip. Maybe three feet tall, he held the green inflatable stem high above his head as if brandishing a sword. His outline, sliced through the noise of the rest of the street, and the cloudiness of my thoughts. I held onto the image for the rest of the block until it occurred to me to turn back around. The boy had since emerged from the doorway and become absorbed by the activity in the street as he walked between two parked cars, his tulip limp beside him. To see the moment after breaks the spell of the memory. It spoils the picture. In the still frame, there is an endless realm of possibility.
“Everything is a photograph,” the photographer Saul Leiter once said. For the duration of his life, he reported to the streets of New York City, waiting in the wings: on street corners, in steamy cafes, catching moments that would otherwise be forgotten had he not been there. Leiter’s documentation creates a portrait of the city that remains most alive in its partial view and the split seconds that occur when the elements jumble together. His colour photography, particularly, captures the fleeting relationship of place and weather, often painting the scene with a soft focus fog, hard shadows, or a curtain of snow. There is always the sense of a stage that has been set for him.
Street photography, as a practice, imposes its hard eye on a fluid world, but there is a softness to Leiter’s images, which maintain a certain naivety or simplicity. In one photograph, titled simply Blue Skirt (1950s), Leiter appears to be emerging from a subway, and catches in the top left corner the small triangle of a pale blue circular skirt walking on the street above. He didn’t speak much about his process, but of his most documented subject, he said, “the street is like a ballet, you never know what is going to happen,” in a School of Visual Arts interview with Vince Aletti in 2013. A lifelong painter, Leiter experimented with composition, and created photographs in the manner an abstract expressionist painter would – the movement which was floating heavily in the zeitgeist at the time, and perhaps also led him. He shot, as the saying goes, from the hip. His shutter was always in tune with impulse, and reflective of his intuition.
As the seasons change, there is a particular urge to stop time, to let the light linger longer, and to set the scene properly, to capture it. I’ve missed two moments for photographs already this season. As I thought about the boy and his balloon, I was driving through the western Catskills as the sun lowered – like the opening scene of a movie I’ll never see. The song “Catch” by The Cure was playing loudly – the lyrics mumbled, “I used to try to catch her, but never even caught her name.” The music filtered into the scene like the foreground of a Leiter photograph, a blurry edge of another element momentarily there. “You cannot control the swirl of reality,” Leiter said, in his only radio interview on Lake Effect in 2006. “If you’re very lucky, from time to time, you do something that is good.”
Words by Monica Nelson.
Photographs courtesy of the Saul Leiter Foundation. Phone Call (1957), Hanging Butterflies (1960s), Red Curtain (1956).