My Hero: Sam Blair on Saul Leiter

Filmmaker Sam Blair has been passing through CDR London sessions sporadically during the past decade. Thankfully, he was also the catalyst in motivating his brother, Lukid, to submit tracks. In a feature that sees members of CDR’s extended community highlight individuals who’ve been a source of inspiration and influence, Sam has written about one of his heroes. 

Saul Leiter has spent decades walking around his neighbourhood in New York taking photographs. He worked professionally as a fashion photographer without ever really making waves, and his street photography was ignored – he just quietly got on with it because it made him happy. These photographs were recently (re)discovered and have brought a new level of recognition and respect to a man who is now in his 80’s. I wonder how that must feel. An old man finally getting the appreciation for his younger self’s work. Above and beyond the romantic notion of the undiscovered artist, however, Saul Leiter’s photographs represent something with far more value – a way of looking at the world, which he describes as a search for beauty:

“I have a great regard for certain notions of beauty even though to some it is an old fashioned idea. Some photographers think that by taking pictures of human misery, they are addressing a serious problem. I do not think that misery is more profound than happiness.”

There is no denying his photographs are beautiful, but not in a whimsical way – for me there is something vital and remarkable about them as they reveal what we would have missed had he not shown us. He is diligently looking and finding beauty in the world around him when it is so easy for it to pass us by. When I look at Saul Leiter’s photographs it reminds me that what truly gives a film power is the director’s way of seeing. When you watch a film made with that eye you notice it immediately – even in the first shot or the first edit – this person is really showing us something. Everyone wants to make films these days, and everyone can – but the question is what are you really showing us and why?

Documentary filmmaking is a way of framing the world and when I look at his photographs it inspires me to ask myself those questions but also to take pleasure in looking at life. As in his photographs, cinema is about not only what you show but what you don’t show, light and shadow, what is on-screen and off, sound and silence. Leiter’s photographs are full of these connects and disconnects and mini narratives. Often his subjects are half glimpsed, turned away, or distorted through windows and reflections and I feel he shows us just enough instead of too much, which is something I would like to achieve in my filmmaking. He photographs real life but with a sense of space and mystery.

Success is hard to find and the struggle to achieve and build a career can turn us inwards, obsessing over our own talents and achievements. That Leiter’s recognition came so late in life is one thing I consider, but more important to me is that he dedicated his life to looking outwards and finding a way to capture and frame the world that brought him, and now us, happiness.

You can connect with Sam @sameblair. Personal Best, his documentary on elite athletes, is well worth watching, as is the film it was developed from, Sprinters

And from the Archives..