Saul Leiter

Reading the course guide on the subject of both surrealism and street photography put me in mind of Saul Leiter. I came across him on a random visit to the Photographers Gallery a few years ago and picked up a book of his photographs at the same time. Since I write this in the context of B&W photography I want to mention his early work where his street photography very much epitomises the surrealist ideas of chance encounters, producing images that invite interpretation. The image below shows this idea very well.
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Many of his images were given quite literal titles which rather negated any surrealistic interpretation. This image on the above website is titled ‘Nuns’, which is perfectly descriptive. However in the Photofile book it is titled ‘Wind’, which actually adds to the humour and certainly allows for a different interpretation.

In his later colour photography he often created semi-abstract images by use of mirrors, window reflections, or anything to hand that might provide an interesting intermediary. Many of these now follow some of the ideas of surrealism, in that they do not provide a direct narrative but require interpretation. However if one of the defining characteristic of surrealism is the idea of playing on the viewer’s own psychology, much of Leiter’s work becomes more suggestive of his own psychology. Is this then surrealism at all?
In the image below the intervening steamed-up window blurs the figure behind so that he partly seems to fade away. The writing scrawled in the steam very much grounds the image in reality to counteract any dream like quality of the blurred figure.
(view at

In the photograph below Leiter combines reflected and straight ahead views in the same image. The effect is disconcerting but is it psychologically so?
(view at
It doesn’t have the same dream-like quality that, for example, André Kertész did with ‘Meudon’. It does have other qualities more in keeping with the concept of street photography though; there is a strong sense of the overwhelming nature of much city life. This became a feature of many of his images, the way that busy urban environments can disconcert just because of the way they are.

Kozloff, M. (2008) Saul Leiter (Photofile). (01 edition) (s.l.): Thames and Hudson Ltd.

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