Saul Leiter seems to be one of photography’s best kept secrets. He does not appear many text books and is rarely mentioned alongside Eggleston and Shore as a pioneer of using colour at a time when serious photographers were shooting in black and white for all but fashion work.
Influenced by HCB and Mark Rothko, Leiter has achieved a “poetic evocativeness” according to the exhibition blurb. The words on the wall also talk about ‘radical subjective photography’ with a ‘psychological component’ revealing ‘sensitivity to the social turbulence and uncertainty’ post-WW2.
One of the co-curators of the show, Brigitte Woischnik, says Leiter’s influence is “ahead of us” and I certainly found this to be a deeply inspiring collection of images.
Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1923, Leiter ran away from home to avoiding becoming a rabbi and moved to New York in 1946. Here he took up as a painter and met abstract expressionist Richard Pousette-Dart. Whilst never fully abandoning painting, Leiter became fascinated with the potential of the photographic image, having witnessed some Cartier-Bresson magic, and was encouraged by W Eugene Smith to pursue this as a career. As well as in his street photography and personal work, Leiter’s artistry shines through in his fashion shoots for Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, Elle and Nova. Here he follows his gentle style of multiple layers and perspectives, colour blocks, obscured parts, blurred hints, reflective surfaces and unusual framing devices.
I have long been fascinated with the acceptable parameters of the expanse of negative space in an image and Leiter shows that the compositional rules can be pushed much further than I’d previously have comfortable with. Sometimes very large areas are out of focus and the scene can be quite cluttered.
As well as some of the exquisite snapshot-size prints stuck up with ‘photo corners’, I liked the fact that many of the images are untitled. Words could add nothing. Those that are captioned seem, in some cases, to be more about his nickname for them eg ‘bonnet’ (see image below) or serve as a pointer to what caught his interest eg ‘hat’ where only one of several people is not wearing a hat. In his own words: “It is not where it is or what is that matters, it is how you see it.”
Many of the images are in portrait orientation and this often succeeds in isolating what has caught his eye. There are lots of reflections and asymmetry. Subjects are framed or overlapped by lines, structures, obstructions or deep shadows. Anything to soften, break up, obscure. He manages to create a sense of the claustrophobia of New York , even in the images with a lot of space or of just one person.
In terms of the curation, the exhibition starts with some vintage black and white and then shows the painted nude images, fashion and then his more well-known street scenes in colour. These larger Chromogenic prints look almost like canvas and fit perfectly with the painterly aesthetic. There are some paintings interspersed, presumably to highlight how some of the colour accents and motifs recur in his work. We are reminded throughout that this artist is not restricted to just one genre or one medium. Interestingly, to save money, Leiter purchased colour film which was past its sell-by date and the resulting muted colours have added a wonderful nuance to his images.
His painted nudes don’t really interest me – I actually find them a little bit creepy – but the colours are beautiful. Lots of delicate yellows, orange, lime and pinks.
Max Kozloff says: “He’s more abstract than many, he’s more constructive than several but he’s also more soulful than a great many.” His biographer also explained that he thinks Leiter was not really a photographer but used photography for his own purpose.
Leiter was by all accounts a modest man who chose to stay out of the limelight. This remoteness is somewhat reflected in his images – there are often barriers, canopies, railings, glass windows and other paraphernalia between Leiter and his subjects.
“I don’t have a philosophy, I have a camera.”
I am encouraged having seen this work to be much more experimental. Leiter’s image “Doorman” is so blurred and dark as to be barely recognisable but it completely captures a familiar scene outside of a hotel on a busy NYC street. ‘Foot on El’ 1954 has a prominent reflection which alters the whole surface and adds a confusion of lines which it talks a while to unravel. And yet, it works.
Woischnik says Leiter always had a camera with him and was very patient. He felt he had no need to travel as so much was on his doorstep in the East Village. The weather is clearly a source of great material and he perfectly captures the textures and atmosphere of New York. Wonderful stuff. When I grow up I want to be an abstract expressionist photographer.
“If we look and look, we begin to see and are still left with the pleasure of uncertainty.”