It is difficult to believe that leading pioneer of photography Saul Leiter (1923-2013) has not had a major solo exhibition in the UK until now. A significant contributor to the development of what is now recognised as the New York School of Photographers, Leiter galvanised our understanding of contemporary photography and painting. For the first time, The Photographers’ Gallery in London presents a retrospective of the photographer’s prolific career. Featuring a carefully curated plethora of over 100 photographs, sketchbooks and ephemera, Saul Leiter: A Retrospective is a suitable celebration for a trailblazer of modern photography.
Born into a Jewish family in Pennsylvania, USA, Leiter began his relationship with the camera very early on in life, despite originally studying to become a Rabbi. Leiter then abandoned his theological studies and moved to New York City, aged 23, to pursue his love of painting. Soon afterwards he was fortunate enough to meet noted abstract expressionist painter Richard Pousette-Dart, who encouraged Leiter to explore his talent in photography even further.
The photographer grew to be very experimental in his work, using a variety of different focal lengths, spaces and perspectives; however he was not endeavouring to seek a form of perfection within his work. In fact he is quoted to have said: “perfection is not something I admire. A touch of confusion is a desirable ingredient”. He began using Kodachrome colour slide film as early as 1946, and was highly criticised for going against the artistic trends of the time.
Leiter was not hugely recognised for his role as an advocate for colour photography until much later in his life, and it was only until its widespread popularity in the 1970s that he was appreciated as such. This unapologetic trial and error approach is what has made Leiter one of the most appreciated contemporary photographers of the 20th Century. His extensive collection of photographs resides within the genres of street photography, portraiture and still life, focusing mainly on his discoveries within the city of New York, where he lived for 60 years.
The absence of clarity, the muted detail and the reduction of depth of field is exemplary of Leiter’s ability to perfectly capture the infamous movement and energy of New York. Leiter always saw himself as both a painter and a photographer, drawn to shadows, shapes and surfaces that created a medium fluidity between the two. His photos often look like abstract paintings, with figures becoming ambiguous forms yet still maintaining intensely vivid colour.
This aesthetic style, which Leiter is characterised for, has inspired the careers of many contemporary photographers, artists and directors. Most recently, director Todd Haynes credited Leiter as being the artistic inspiration for most of his work, including his latest film Carol.
Saul Leiter: A Retrospective, 22 January – 3 April 2016, The Photographers’ Gallery, London
For more, visit www.thephotographersgallery.org.uk.
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1. Saul Leiter, Snow, 1960 © Saul Leiter Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York