Exhibition: Saul Leiter

Unofficial OCA study visit, The Photographer’s Gallery, London

10th February 2015

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I’ve been a fan of Leiter since I discovered the documentary In No Great Hurry (Leach 2012), shortly before he died. He’s a fantastic example of my theory that ‘good people’ take good photographs – he came across as light-hearted, humble and utterly bemused by the belated attention – which is wholly deserved: whilst he wasn’t a total unknown à la Vivian Maier, he was definitely unsung.

He was a pioneer of colour photography in the 1950s, a couple of decades before Eggleston’s supposed New Colour Photography broke through. Leiter combined street shooting with a painterly aesthetic, finding a dreamlike beauty in the everyday and bringing abstract expressionism to the New York streets that everyone else saw in gritty black and white.

It’s a well-curated selection that features enough of the ‘greatest hits’ whilst simultaneously shining a light on his lesser-known work. A surprising chunk of space is devoted to his early black and white output. Whilst a handful of these bring to mind other photographers (Friedlander, Cartier-Bresson), what struck me about most was how identifiably Leiter they are. Even with colour absent, his signature motifs – reflections, windows, rain, people framed by street furniture and so on – are all there.

A painter with a camera

Leiter identified himself as a painter more than a photographer, which is either overly modest or delusional, as his photography is much more accomplished that his painting. His experiments in merging the two were of some interest; the over-painting of nudes in particular was a successful style. What came across in the best of these was the underlying composition being undeniably photographic no matter how much paint he applied; it’s almost as if one is looking at a photograph and a painting at the same time.

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Overpainted nudes, Saul Leiter

The Leiter look

The stars of the show were the classic Leiter shots that attracted me in the first place: the strong colours, the ethereal aesthetic, the other-worldly use of mirrors, steamy windows, rain, umbrellas, street signs. I like the way he saw the world, with a painter’s eye for form, light and of course colour. There may not always be a lot of depth to his work – he once said “I don’t have a philosophy, I have a camera” – yet they bear repeated viewing.

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One of the aspects of such impressionistic art that really appeals to me is that it gives the viewer something to do – the mind needs to take the visual information provided and try to make some sense of it, so it feels more like a collaboration between the artist and the audience than a more indexical image.

Leiter managed to capture the essence of a scene rather than a forensically sharp document. These scenes existed in life, but it took Leiter to see them, and to know where to stand and when to press the shutter (and to load his camera with the right kind of out-of-date film…)

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Various 1950s works, Saul Leiter

A key stylistic element in his work is the use of some kind of veil or barrier between camera and subject: windows, mirrors, rain, steam, mist, snow, umbrellas. Even his fashion work broke with norms by often obscuring the subject’s face. This comes across as possibly an unconscious response to his own introversion or wish for ‘invisibility’; one gets a sense of a shy observer peeking, but not entering, into other worlds.

Compositional traits

One aspect of Leiter’s work that stood out to me was his preference for the vertical ratio; he used this format much more than a lot of photographers. Was this another influence from painting? I guess more often than not a painter’s canvas on an easel is in portrait ratio? (correct me if this is wrong). It wasn’t Leiter but another photographer, Ralph Gibson, who attempted to articulate a rationale for vertical format: the eyes are horizontal so landscape ratio is more natural – but what if you want your images to not look natural…?

Coupled with this portrait orientation, Leiter often chose quite unusual compositions, placing items of most focus at edges, selecting partial crops of subjects, adding in a secondary point of interest and so on. He followed no conventional rules of composition yet created distinctive images that draw the eyes in.

Back when I first discovered Leiter and got the Saul Leiter: Retrospective book (Taubhorn & Woischnik 2012) I made notes on what words sprang to mind as I absorbed his images, and I’ve just dug these notes out to revisit them in the light of the exhibition:

geometry – contrast – abstract – colours blocks – shape – simplicity – framing – impressionistic – mist – reflection – unusual focus – sense of mystery – abstract

I think these first impressions still stand. As I noted at the time, that’s quite an intriguing set of responses to what is basically a set of New York street scenes. It’s hard to think of anyone else that would have seen what Leiter saw.

Summary

It was good to see this show with other OCA students (Jayne Kemp, Richard Brown, Carol Street, Sarah-Jane Field, Catherine Banks and Holly Woodward) as it gave us an opportunity to discuss the photos while we stood in front of them – it’s my first meetup of this kind and I found having people to bounce thoughts off was really valuable.

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OCA study buddies

In summary, this was an exhibition that I was very much looking forward to and it did not disappoint in any respect.

Sources

http://thephotographersgallery.org.uk/images/Saul_Leiter_intro_HR_56a0cb9c434c5.pdf (accessed 10/02/2016)

Taubhorn, I and Woischnik, B. (2012). Saul Leiter: Retrospective. Hamburg: Kehrer Verlag

In No Great Hurry: 13 Lessons in Life with Saul Leiter. (2012) Directed by Tomas Leach

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4 thoughts on “Exhibition: Saul Leiter

  1. Catherine 11 February 2016 / 17:36

    I enjoyed looking at the painting on the photographs of nudes – have never seen them before. Quite inspired me to try it; well to do something about being inspired as I bought some paints about a year ago ready to have a go.
    Interesting about the portrait orientation which is more unusual and different I think.

    Like

    • Rob Townsend 11 February 2016 / 17:43

      Yes, the over-paintings were the pleasant surprise for me too, more so than his ‘normal’ painting efforts.

      Like

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