The rediscovery of Saul Leiter has been under way since 1989 when the art historian Martin Harrison wrote an article about him for a Sunday supplement. But despite some mentions in books and exhibitions in the 1990s, Leiter – by then in his 70s – never quite caught the public imagination. The turning point came in 2006 when Steidl published Saul Leiter: Early Color. The collection of brilliantly original colour pictures taken from 1948 to 1960 was a revelation and the world finally took notice. It’s now in its sixth printing and there have been several more monographs.
Saul Leiter: Retrospective at The Photographers’ Gallery in London is the New York street photographer’s first major British show. If he had been here to see it – he died in 2013 at the age of 89 – he would probably have been as bemused by the fuss as he was by all the attention he received so late in his life. Compared to the great painters he admired, Leiter saw himself as a minor figure. He spent decades avoiding the limelight. He would fail to open letters from galleries wanting to show his work, only to discover the invitation tucked into a book 30 years later. He took the small pleasures of living seriously and said he would rather drink a cup of coffee or look out of the window than go scurrying after fame. For 52 years he lived in the same apartment in the East Village, content to take most of his pictures in the neighbourhood. “I think mysterious things happen in familiar places,” he said. “We don’t always need to run to the other end of the world.”
Leiter was a painter as well as a photographer and the exhibition sets out to show the relationship between these activities. Alongside his black-and-white and colour photographs, it includes examples of his vibrantly hued paintings in gouache, casein and watercolour, his over-painted photos of sensual nudes and the small painted notebooks that he reworked over many years.
In 1958, the legendary art director Henry Wolf joined Harper’s Bazaar and he asked Leiter to take fashion pictures, an occupation that earned him a living, along with advertising work, until the early 1980s. The show includes prints of his fashion photos, as well as magazine covers and spreads, and the chance to see the continuity between Leiter’s public pictures and the personal images he kept hidden for so many years is a highlight. Fashion was of no great interest to Leiter, though the shoots did take him abroad, but he clearly loved to photograph women – Soames Bantry, a model who was also an artist, became a life-long companion – and the pictures are always delicate and tender, their palette muted and exquisite. Where other fashion photographers were sculptural and direct, Leiter would conceal a model’s face by a dangling mobile, or dissolve her features in a haze of tinted mist. In a magazine study of Bantry, an oval window frames her fingers, nose and eyes, leaving a flat blue screen to fill most of the space.
In Leiter’s images, figures that would have been the central concern for other street photographers are often treated as incidental detail, no more or less integral to the pictorial effect than any other element. In Taxi (c. 1957) a hand stands out in the yellow frame of the window, but the passenger and driver are impersonal silhouettes. Through Boards (1957) permits only a glimpse of a white car and a strolling man through a slit between pieces of wood. The flat blocks of dark colour suggest one of Mark Rothko’s abstract expressionist paintings. We see more of the figure in Harlem (1960) but the man’s eyes are lost in shadow and Leiter is just as interested in the fragments of lettering above him and the way all these pieces squash together into unity. Mid-20th-century photographers and photography writers looked down on colour, which they saw as a tool of advertising and fashion, and frivolous compared to black and white’s power to define form. In Leiter’s work, this is a false distinction and colour and form are inseparable.
Leiter often photographed mirrors or shot through windows, beguiled by reflections that confused inside and outside, and the way that rain or condensation would filter and distort figures and shapes. In Snow (1960), the legs of the men in the street outside appear to melt into wet trails like human jellyfish. “It is not where it is or what it is that matters,” said Leiter, “but how you see it.” In Mirrors (c. 1958), the reflection – we can’t tell where or what it is –fractures the street scene into five narrow shards, verging on abstraction, a link to Leiter’s abstract paintings that the exhibition underscores by mingling paintings and photographs on the walls. Images such as this were highly innovative in their time and the lyricism is undiminished today, but their modernity is now tinged with inevitable feelings of nostalgia for a bygone New York. Todd Haynes, director of the film Carol, cited the pictures as visual references.
This is a telling moment for Leiter’s hidden work to emerge so persuasively. Leiter revelled in colour. He thought the squeamishness his contemporaries felt about it was absurd. He searched for beauty without embarrassment and he produced images that transfigure what he found on his doorstep and delight viewers with their poetry. “I don’t have a philosophy,” he said. “I have a camera.” At a time when photography is firmly in the art world’s hands and the conceptual approach is de rigueur for many that was an intriguing sentiment to find emblazoned approvingly in the stairwell of The Photographers’ Gallery. The last thing Leiter felt inclined to do in his final years was to explain pictures that had spent decades stored as slides in old boxes in his apartment. Should his emphasis on doing be seen as a throwback, quaint but untenable now? Or does the magnetism of his work say something about a continuing appetite for images that elude explanation while feeling to our eyes as though they glisten with inner meaning?
Rick Poynor writes a weekly column about photography at designobserver.com/profile/rickpoynor/81. Saul Leiter: Retrospective is at The Photographers’ Gallery, London, until April 3, thephotographersgallery.org.uk
This article was published in the March 2016 Film & TV issue of Creative Review.