This piece originally appeared in print inSo It Goes Issue.2, Autumn 2013.
Saul Leiter had managed to avoid the limelight for decades. Uninterested by the mythologising applied to the photographic hall of fame, with its heroes of the street scene and pioneers of colour, a bemused Leiter has recently been placed high among its ranks. In our age of overload, his slow and meditative vignettes of New York, which date from the 1950s up to the present, are much needed; they are a quiet, beautiful relief from other tumultuous chronicling of the city.
Autodidact, street photographer, painter, master of colour photography, commercial fashion photographer – Saul Leiter’s critical acclaim is somewhat belated. Perhaps it’s because his credentials stretch beyond the rigid classifications of the medium that he can float above and beyond his fame. His path is a comforting one, a story of sedate and stubborn personal development.
Born in the industrial heartland of rustbelt Pennsylvania, Leiter was the son of an Orthodox rabbi and renowned Talmud scholar from Pittsburgh. Unlike his brothers, Leiter struggled with the family profession, dropping out of theology school at twenty-three. Spurred by his interest in Abstract Expressionism and armed with a 35mm Leica, Leiter moved to New York. Different to his contemporaries – gritty urban exponents of the New York street photography scene – Leiter brought a painterly sensibility to his work, and after early explorations of abstract black-and-white photography, his imagery was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art. While Leiter was then (and is now) disengaged from the commercial considerations that often accompany a career in photography, the camera soon became a way to pay the bills and he forged a gently successful career out of editorial commissions for renowned fashion publications including Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Esquire.
It was in between these shoots, however, that his work began to shift shape. Leiter was faithfully devoted to one lifelong muse – the rich, luxurious colour of the Kodak ‘Kodachrome’ film. For so long associated with the world of advertising, Leiter was unconcerned by Madison Avenue’s noisy fixation with selling products, instead using his film’s hazy saturation to find serenity in the disorderly chaos of New York. Obscure until the 1990s, Leiter’s colour street photographs tell of one man’s long, private relationship with the city, which carries on today. Unlike the stark, glaring faces of Robert Frank’s The Americans, or other street photography documenting the country at the time, Leiter’s Americans are mere shapes, trapped between the loud signs of the city and the dense shadows they cast. New York is painted as a bright and lonely Technicolor playground, saturated with words and lines, where the faces of men are hidden under sharp hats and women silhouetted behind frosted windows. Leiter has cited his lack of ambition as a driving force in his work, “Being ignored is a great privilege. That is how I think I learnt to see what others do not see and to react to situations differently.”
The artefacts of this intimate affair are fittingly enigmatic. En masse they do not lay claim, as many photographs do, to reflect the psyche of a specific cultural climate. They do not claim to be anything at all aside from the fruits of one man’s unfinished search for beauty in the city. As a result, they are simple and profound, familiar and surreal, private and public. Or, in Leiter’s own words, they are simply pictures that are “meant to tickle your left ear”.