In 1946 Saul Leiter left Pennsylvania for New York City in pursuit of a creative career, abandoning his theological studies at rabbinical school. Soon after moving, Leiter was introduced to photography by American artist Richard Pousette-Dart and it became his main source of artistic output. The photographer only gained recognition for his work much later in his life, with Tomas Leach’s 2012 film, In No Great Hurry: 13 Life Lessons with Saul Leiter, feeling like the first real insight into the reserved photographer’s career. He is now regarded as a leading figure in the field and the new retrospective at The Photographers’ Gallery is the first major UK-based show of his work.
Leiter, who died in 2013, combined street photography with portraiture, fashion and architecture in ways that remain relevant today. His subjects were anything he deemed interesting: passers-by, shop windows, street signs and cars among other things. Unlike many photographer’s that took to New York’s bustling streets, Leiter was only interested in the fleeting moments and the accidental. This is apparent in his early black and white photographs from the 1940s and 50s, which sit at the front of the exhibition. Rarely are faces captured and instead the reflections and silhouettes of his subjects are the focus, as well as the stark contrast between the light and grey corners of the city.
The photographs have been hung in lines like rows of buildings, and the wooden floor of the gallery acts like an emptier, less chaotic street. This peacefulness fits perfectly with Leiter’s images, which are quiet, striking and composed. It’s a show to take time over, and despite the close hanging of his work, there’s still room to mull over the colours, the textures and feelings his photographs conjure.
Unlike his contemporaries Leiter was an early adopter of colour photography, despite many others rejecting it at the time as they deemed the vivid colours it produced unsuitable for “artistic expression.” Leiter used colour film that was past its sell-by date to save money, but it meant the tones and shades created were more muted and gentle than normal. In the exhibition, it makes the transition from black and white to colour luxuriously smooth, with our first glimpse of his colour photography through the commercial work Leiter created for fashion mags like British Vogue, Elle and Nova up until the 1970s.
Leiter’s first commission was for Harper’s Bazaar, and throughout his commercial work he managed to retain his own style which often had a narrative draped in complex, delicate colours with a soft focus. This painterly approach appears in his other colour photography where glimmers of Rothko’s colour field paintings can be picked out, like Through Boards, which on first glance appears to be an image wrapped in swathes of crimson, black and white, but on closer inspection simply a scene from outside a shop taken behind a boarded up window. The intimacy he creates even from afar is what elevates Leiter’s photography far beyond the street photography we’re used to. A celebration of his work might be belated, but it’s needed if only as a lesson in how to frame insignificant moments as something worth paying attention to.
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