The Unlikely Protagonist: Saul Leiter’s “Snow”

A writer selects one image from our current exhibitions and responds to it. For our Winter 2016 programme, we have invited six students on the MA Critical Writing in Art and Design course at the Royal College of Art, London. Here, Izabella Scott selects Saul Leiter’s Snow (1960), which features in our current exhibition Saul Leiter: Retrospective

01_ Press Image l Saul Leiter, Snow, 1960

Saul Leiter, Snow, 1960 © Saul Leiter Courtesy: Saul Leiter, Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York. 

A man pauses in the street, fumbling with something – a leaf of paper, a coin, it’s impossible to say for sure. The light is low and there is slush underfoot. This is winter in New York. In fact, this is the winter of 1960, remembered for its ferocious blizzards and two crippling snowstorms. It’s difficult to glean many details from this figure, a dark shape against stark snow. I notice grey hair protruding from his cap to signal age – a whole lifetime of it; and the light catches his bare hands, which are exposed to the elements. But a foggy wintered window impairs a clear view of him, so that details of his face and attire disappear behind droplets of condensation. His legs, for example, look how they dwindle into streaks as if whittled down by the cold; and his boots shrink behind the glass, dissolving into the shadows of footprints in the slush. The street too is dressed in a receptive layer, a zinc-white coating of mucky snow that’s been dented by boots and tyre tracks. Tempered by the cold and the glass, his body seems to wither and thaw, a snowman softening into the crust.

But the man, though he’s at the centre of this image, he is not Saul Leiter’s protagonist. Nor is “Snow”, as the title of the photograph contends. The protagonist is a sweating tram window, a surface that holds many things in suspense, populated with evaporating beads of moisture, wipe marks and dripping lines. Like a camera lens, this sheet of glass inflects everything that is seen through it, and its film of condensation brings certain things into focus, and allows others to blur. Saul Leiter often chose to photograph taxi windows and to capture his unknowing subjects from inside a restaurant, or looking out through a train window. He moved to New York in 1940 intent on becoming a painter, but increasingly traversed his East Village neighborhood with a camera, photographing panes of glass. This chosen window is a crowded surface, one that’s been covered in bodily impressions: fingermarks and streaks of breath and the skids of flattened noses. It becomes a palimpsest of gazes, for every new looker who sits where Saul Leiter sits must sop their window with a sleeve or squash their noses against its pane in order to glimpse the city behind. And there is one particular wipe, one languid erasure which is the largest and most recent one of all, a fat sleeve I believe, which has opened up an aperture through which to observe this man, this snow, this surface.

As Leiter’s protagonist, the window provides its own idiosyncratic focus onto the street beyond. It’s Janus-faced, staring in two directions, and it bears stenciled letters signalling to a gaze looking the opposite way, some of which spell out SEATS. That long wipe through which we see the street most clearly is also a kind of eye, a half-dreaming creature that blinks a lid open to glimpse a fumbling figure, a streak of yellow bus, more relentless snow. And soon the pane will fog over, its eyelid drooping shut, and the tram will advance and the man will retreat – and this moment fixed only on Leiter’s film will be relegated to the delirium of the past.

This deviant pane warps the view beyond it, transforming the slice of street it frames into a surface as supple as paint; that chrome yellow bus, glimpsed through its wetness is reborn as a fat brushstroke, just like one of de Kooning’s – whose Action painting of the same year, Door to the River (1960) includes the same chunk of cadmium yellow, this time applied with a housepainter’s brush. ‘Content’, said de Kooning in 1960, ‘is a glimpse of something, an encounter, like a flash.’ He might well have been talking of the camera’s shutter, a brief encounter on a busy street. Saul Leiter, by employing a sheet of glass as his leading actor, reminds us that every photograph, like every painting, is infiltrated by selfhood, and while photography in particular offers us images so devastatingly akin to the way we see the world, we must not forget that it’s always also a flat, silent otherworld – a canvas, a plate, a sheet of glass, inflected by the artist’s dreaming eye.

Izabella Scott is a writer based in London. She works as an editor for the publisher MACK (since 2012) and for The White Review  @izabellascott


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