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Saul Leiter: The Art Of City Life

Saul Leiter has only emerged on my radar quite recently. Indeed, even for most close observers of photography, the work for which he is now best known came to light some time after his professional career had ended. This is rather appropriate, given Leiter's unhurried, sincere approach to photography, which has none of the egotism - familiar in the art world - that can sometimes lead to a discrepancy between notoriety and substance. Saul Leiter has been far too busy photographing to worry about promoting, or even sharing, his work!

Leiter is a rare artist, one whose vision is so encompassing, so refined, that his best photographs seem literally to transcend the medium - Jane Livingstone

Leiter was born in 1923 into a traditional Othodox Jewish family. His photography career was underway by his mid-twenties and throughout the 1950's and 60's he carved out a strong, if not terribly lucrative, niche in fashion. But it was his decision in the 1990's to unpack the boxes of colour street photos he had taken during his career - and kept stashed away in his apartment - that thrust him into the spotlight, and caught the photography world off-guard!

Suddenly a flood of exhibitions and several publications gave us all access to the New York street scenes Leiter had photographed decades earlier. These vibrant Kodachrome images are a product of Leiter's unique attitude towards city life, beauty and photography, as well as his encounters with contemporary Abstract Expressionist painters and photographers like Diane Arbus.

Like many photographers, Leiter's output was shaped by a dichotomy between professional and personal interest. In recent times he has spoken of his occassional struggles to keep afloat financially, despite what seems to have been a pretty stellar career in fashion photography; his work was published by top fashion magazines like Harper's Bazaar and Vogue. This line of work allowed him to earn his crust, whilst quietly pursuing his passion for street photography.

Photography and the street were two things that slotted together very neatly for Leiter. As a young man he had been drawn towards art, but found himself pursuing the Rabbinical study that he had been brought up to. Before completing his theological training, though, he made an about-turn and, with the intention of becoming an artist, departed his home of Philadelphia for New York City. From the beginning his artistic motivation was tied up with life in the metropolis, and so it remained.

Leiter pretty soon fell in with the Abstract Expressionist painter Richard Pousette-Dart and photographer W.Eugene Smith. Interested and gifted as a both a painter and photographer, these two new friends encouraged him to develop as the latter. His early work was very striking and soon earned the attention of Edward Steichan who exhibited it twice at MoMA in the 50's - the "Experimental Photography In Colour" exhibition including 20 of Leiter's images.

But that proved the last of Leiter's New York street photography that was to be shared with the public until the 1990's. He settled into life as a New Yorker, getting by as a fashion shooter and methodically yet excitedly churning out hundreds of images for sheer personal passion. He was perhaps so productive as a street photographer in this time because he was entirely undistracted by promotion and never blown off-course by praise.

Leiter has often spoken of his love of New York City, in sometimes quite stark terms. He loves being ignored. He enjoys the anonymity, the fact you are no one special. The feeling of being a tiny tadpole in a huge ocean instead of a big fish in a small pond. Similarly, he likes the apparently prosaic aesthetic of the street. It might not be a romantic idyll, but you can find real beauty in it, Leiter feels.

As you of the benefits is that the world becomes a much richer, juicier visual place. Sometimes it's almost unbearable, it's too interesting. And it isn't just the photographs you take that matter, it's looking at the world and seeing things...that could be photographs. - Saul leiter

saul leiter photographs

His images reflect this interest in unexpected beauty. Various shapes and bold colours align into abstract compositions to make fleetingly compelling scenes. There is nothing special about the individual components - a yellow cab, a misty window, or a red umbrella - but when all brought together they become rather wonderful.The influence of Abstract Expressionism is very clear, and in some shots it is the quality and spatial arrangement of colour that is the real subject matter, as in a Rothko painting.

But Leiter is, of course, producing these constructs out of real things and, as the viewer, you are always conscious of the dual abstract and mundane nature of the details. This is how the photographer experienced city life, and relished it. Whilst some find the frantic pace and bustle of New York an assault on the senses that precludes calm reflection, Leiter found it peaceful and stimulating. He could fade into the background and soak up the visual potential. The use of real objects to produce abstract forms results in a sense of compression - there is a lot crammed into a small space - but, precisely through that comes a sense of visual order and beauty.

So, why did Leiter wait so long before sharing his work with everyone? I think he was deeply consumed by the process of creating pictures itself, and has been happier living for most of his life as an anonymous New Yorker rather than a famous photographer. It is also important to acknowledge that he never took up photography at the expense of his love for painting. This continued alongside his development as a photographer, and has informed his approach to taking pictures in terms of treatment of colour, composition and space. These two pursuits have been more fruitfully explored as a quiet observer on a street corner than under the scrutiny of the world's art critics.

A recent exhibition of Saul Leiter's work was held at the Henri Cartier-Bresson foundation in Paris, which featured a large number of those colour street photographs that were as anonymous as Leiter for such a long time.

You might like to watch the video below, a trailer for a documentary on Leiter's life, which offers a quick glimpse of his refreshingly light but sincere attitude. Alternatively, here is a gallery of Saul Leiter's images you can explore.


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