The New York neighbourhood of East Village has over the years spawned cultural phenomena of the most diverse character, being a seedbed of punk, hip hop, experimental theatre, Warhol superstars and, most famously, the Beat generation. And it has also given us Saul Leiter (1923-2013), a photographer and a painter, whose work is as singular and outré as any of Ginsberg’s verses. Of course, the former could never equal the latter’s vociferous poem recitations in the streets and cafes and quite contrary, preferred to slip by unnoticed.
Gallerists and art historians have, however, managed to thwart his efforts to live a mousy life and his photographs have recently been exhibited in major European cities, including Paris, Amsterdam, Vienna and Hamburg. The Photographer’s Gallery in London is next, hosting an exhibition on Leiter’s 1940s-70s output until 3 April 2016. A great deal has by now been written about the inroads he had made into colour photography and Leiter has been consequently titled the pioneer in that field, a precocious visionary who outstripped William Eggleston and Stephen Shore by at least two decades. He himself undermined that label as he knew about artists toying with colour earlier and, truly, a quick Internet search throws up not only chromatic Bauhaus experiments but also exceptional colour images captured by Fred Herzog, Helen Levitt and Ernst Haas. These photographers were active in the mid-20th century just like Leiter and, unsurprisingly, have all been hailed as unique mavericks. The art world should count itself lucky- it has evidently sustained more geniuses than it can keep track of.
Who started first and who beat whom was absolutely irrelevant to Leiter – competing with others was never on his mind. The exhibition at TPG reveals that his primary interests were mostly insignificant moments of the urban hustle and bustle: here, a woman hiding from rain under a large pink umbrella, there, a man standing in the snow and counting his change. In other images, Leiter snapped traffic, advertisement signs, shadows, stairs, innumerable windows and shop fronts, virtually everything that makes a city. Being an abstract painter and a sensitive soul, Leiter could not bring himself to produce the gritty, harsh street photography that we are accustomed to via William Klein or Garry Winogrand. His images instead only whisper, only suggest. His trademark was to dissolve the image by shooting through fogged-up glass or to collapse exteriors and interiors by seeking window reflections. The results are pleasantly confusing compositions that refract your attention as if it was a single stream of light breaking upon a diamond. Or, as he attempted to summarize during filming of Tomas Leach’s 2012 documentary on his work, In No Great Hurry: ‘I took some pictures that are slightly… They are slightly.’
In the said film, which lets Leiter’s humour and charisma flood each one of its 75 minutes, the reclusive photographer often trails off and utters incomplete sentences. He favoured the elliptical and the obscured in his thinking and in his art works, indicating that it is not what is explicitly said or what is distinctly seen that accounts for the human and urban charm. Two of the most compelling images on display in London must be Through Boards (ca.1957) and Canopy (1958), made on a balmy summer day and in a dazzling blizzard respectively. What dominates in the photographs, ironically, are large flat blocks of black and maroon while the street life has been squeezed into thin horizontal bands. It is as if Leiter observed the city show shyly, peeping through cracks, squinting at the intoxicating richness and sensual fluidity of New York. It is safer not to know and contain everything. And it also acts as a more genuine representation of the ephemeral flashes of life in a 24/7 city whose rhythm would inevitably blur, if not fracture even the most tightly controlled frames.
Saul Leiter was born in 1923 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and headed for a theological career intimidatingly carved out by his father, a tireless Talmudic scholar and admired Rabbi. The son, however, never finished the Rabbinical College and instead travelled to New York in 1946 after some of his early paintings received small exposure at home. In the city, he befriended the abstract painter Richard Possette-Dart and photojournalist W. Eugene Smith who were instrumental for Leiter’s deepening interest in photography, fully maturing around 1948. Initially, Leiter made both, black and white and colour Kodachrome photographs samples of which hang on opposite walls in the first exhibition room. Like many other photographers, he had to enter the commercial world in order to make money and his niche became shooting fashion for Harper’s Bazaar, Elle, Vogue and Queen. These can be viewed in the second room which also features Leiter’s journals and sketchbooks as well as a tiny collection of the nude photographs painted over in striking, flamboyant hues. These hybrids formally depart from the melting mysteries of his street photographs but instead of artificial jarring, they actually sensibly dovetail with the rest of the tamed urban stories. Leiter dismissed pure and noble paths to lofty ideals while contradictions made much more sense.
The stubbornly unconventional photographer, who delighted in colour when the fine photography judges demanded the black and white palette (‘Colour is vulgar.’ – Walker Evans), showed mastery of tangling order with chaos, letting splinters of incongruity bring out the whimsical fun. Feet sticking out from under a wooden screen, heads smeared on a white-washed window or a cigarette of a passer-by emerging from a craze of luring posters- all can spark off new associations, even new identities, in a cacophonous urban jungle. For instance, Soames Bantry, Nova (1960) reimagines the body of Leiter’s partner by spilling a film of decorative frosted-glass arabesques on her skin and in Untitled (1950), the display of an antique shop pierces through the airy reflection of a browsing customer. City, beauty and truth become synonymous with fragmented entities that invariably vaporize and liquefy, leaving layers of coating emulsions and hot steam, being slightly… Being slightly.
Saul Leiter: Retrospective, The Photographer’s Gallery, London, until 3 April 2016
PS1- 2013 article in Aperture magazine after one of their writers visited Leiter in his New York studio: http://aperture.org/blog/saul-leiter-east-village/
PS2- Leiter’s photograph inciting one London writer’s musings on a foot: http://thephotographersgalleryblog.org.uk/2016/02/15/the-ready-masterpiece-on-saul-leiters-foot-on-el/
PS3- That mischievous laughter!
‘The important thing in life is not what you get but what you throw out!’ Leiter is full of aphoristic wisdom during the big clear-out of his apartment- a casual business usually undertaken when a film-maker comes to shoot a documentary about you. ‘What can you do?’
PS4- a mini-gallery of Leiter, Herzog and Haas: