Black and white photograph by Saul Leiter of a woman with short hair glancing to the side with half of her face lit up and the other half in shadow

Saul Leiter’s experimental work celebrated in UK retrospective

Just over a decade since his death, the UK’s largest exhibition of Leiter’s work showcases his significant contributions to street and colour photography

Saul Leiter, whose beginnings in photography date back to the 1940s, is recognised as a pioneer of colour photography and one of the most important artists working in the post-war period.

MK Gallery in Milton Keynes is playing host to the largest ever UK retrospective of the American photographer’s work in an exhibition named An Unfinished World, which will present over 170 of his photographs and more than 40 of his lesser-known paintings.

Photograph by Saul Leiter showing two people standing in a snowy city street seen through a damp window
Top: Ana, 1950s; Above: Pull, circa 1960; All images by Saul Leiter © Saul Leiter Foundation

After moving from Pittsburgh to New York City in 1946, he quickly became a known figure in the local art scene, forming a group called The New York School of Photography, which included Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon and Robert Frank, among others.

From this period, right up until his death in 2013, Leiter worked feverishly, photographing every single day and eventually amassing a stunning collection of around 15,000 black and white prints, 40,000 colour slides, and over 4,000 paintings.

Black and white photograph by Saul Leiter showing a person with short hair wearing a dress and bending over backwards leaning up to the sky
Marianne, 1947

His lifelong interest in beauty and aestheticism saw him wander the streets of New York City night and day, rain and shine, in search of beautiful scenes. “Photographs are often treated as important moments but really they are fragments and souvenirs of an unfinished world,” Leiter has said of his practice.

In particular, his work from the 1950s and 1960s garnered international acclaim. Though at the time he was mostly known as a fashion photographer, shooting for publications such as Harper’s Bazaar, Elle, and British Vogue, it was his street photography that would become his most enduring contribution to the field.

Photograph by Saul Leiter showing a man standing in front of a red vehicle wearing a camel coloured hat and suit with a cigarette in his mouth
Harlem, 1960

This was in part because of his embrace of colour photography, which in the early 1960s was not a common feature in the medium’s mainstream. However, Leiter was instinctively drawn to colour, and became one of the first practitioners to truly experiment with this style.

He was known to occasionally use damaged or aged film, and had an eye for atmospheric details like smoke and wet surfaces, all of which allowed him to transform light and colour.

Photograph by Saul Leiter showing a sliver of a city street visible through a horizontal gap in a structure
Through Boards, 1957

His photographs of New York streets, often shot in a cinematic fashion using a telephoto lens, are renowned for their splashes of red, green and yellow. Throughout his extensive portfolio of work, this way of composing shots remains prominent, and has since become a signifier of his unique approach to photography that celebrates the everyday.

As Leiter himself said, “A photographer’s gift to the viewer is sometimes beauty in the overlooked ordinary.”

Photograph by Saul Leiter of two women standing next to luggage cases on a pavement
Untitled, undated
Photograph by Saul Leiter of a rainy city street with a blurred figure crossing the road in front of a green car
Untitled, undated

An Unfinished World is on show at the MK Gallery, Milton Keynes until June 2;