“Plum Umbrella, c. 1957” by Saul Leiter. An early adherent of colour film, Leiter’s work in the medium was mostly neglected during his working career, finding few commercial outlets at the time. The rich body of images he amassed around NYC in the late 50s and early sixties was only rediscovered and promoted in his latter years.
In this shot, Leiter employs one of his favourite devices, closed framing: the titular object blocks our view of the majority of the figures underneath. Between the umbrella in the foreground, which is out of focus, and the large expanse of pavement in the background below, the middle ground forms only a minor part of the overall image and yet holds the key details we need to make sense of it.
Umbrellas were a common motif for Leiter, whether positioned as here to obscure part of the frame or as the subject themselves, often assuming the accent colour in the image (e.g. “Red Umbrella, c.1957”). Yet the title indicates that its colour is of equal importance in this picture. Plum is traditionally one of the royal colours, carrying associations of luxury and opulence - but also of femininity and romance which is the overriding theme here, reinforced by the flowers and the two pairs of feet, clearly male and female, under the umbrella. Interestingly, plum is classified by designers as both a warm and cool colour, as it is composed from a red/blue mix. In this capacity, it harmonises the warm, muted brown shades of the woman’s soft outfit with the cool, grey, harder tones of the pavement.
Compositionally, the man’s leg and the woman’s bent right leg echo lines from adjacent spokes of the umbrella, while the man’s foot continues the arc of its outer edge. Wet streaks on the paving also radiate from the direction of the foremost feet, imparting a sense of their motion. The spokes of the umbrella cause the energy of the image to radiate out from the upper left, so that our gaze almost appears to slide down and off it like raindrops to the figures beneath. The ‘decisive moment’ - the key instant when every element of the picture comes together to form its fullest expression - is most often associated with Henri Cartier-Bresson and not so much a critical element with Leiter, but consider that had he hesitated a second longer, all these elements would have shifted markedly in relation to each other, the result being at best altogether different and at worst entirely unsuccessful.
Although we can only glimpse the merest part of them, this couple are clearly well-dressed, with immaculate shoes co-ordinated to simple, classic suit tailoring. The flowers, which here are picked out by their accent colouring, and positioning of their legs indicate that they are probably on a date or attending an occasion together, a feeling which is reinforced by the romance of the rich plum canopy that protects them. The woman appears to be adjusting her shoe, a distinctively feminine gesture and most likely the one that caught Leiter’s eye (as a professional fashion photographer and with some notably sensual nude work in his portfolio, his interest in the feminine was evident). The flowers lie along the top line of the shoe, while lines in the pavement form an arrow whose apex, together with a leading curve coming in from above, intersects with this gesture, further emphasising it. The partial reflection in the puddle beneath also serves to echo the shape.
The paving has an uncommon, swirling, random pattern, a contrast with the more regular geometry of the umbrella spokes, that is not apparently typical street paving - perhaps the entrance patio of a hotel? The overhead viewpoint, which is often difficult to achieve in an average street comprised of private commercial buildings, may suggest that Leiter was observing the scene from a balcony, although it also hints that the photographer is here placed in the role of some putative Cupid, gazing down on his work with approval from above.
It’s instructive to compare this image with “Stranger In Town” (1942) by Leiter’s mentor Eugene Smith: there, the lower half of a lone male is seen standing with his bags on herringbone block paving, caught in a downpour and, lacking an umbrella (plum or otherwise), clearly drenched - almost the bathetic opposite of the situation depicted here.
As an image, it’s inviting and eyecatching, with that glorious, deep plum colour plainly displayed to draw us in, but what is Saul Leiter telling us here? My interpretation is, despite periods of inclement weather in our daily lives, that we can still be stylish, we can still be elegant, we can still find time for romance and intimacy.
“Plum Umbrella” is unfortunately not included in the otherwise excellent monograph “Early Color”, but can be found in the slim Thames & Hudson Photofile volume of Saul Leiter’s work, published in 2008.