During his lifetime, Saul Leiter (1923–2013) was something of the ignored artist of American photographic history. While his career spanned a time when quintessential New York street photography was defined as swift, sharp and precise, Leiter’s leisured, impressionist style went against the grain. Leiter was a pioneer of colour photography, adventurously using Kodachrome colour slide film well before the likes of William Eggleston and Joel Meyerowitz. As the Guardian’s Sean O’Hagan wrote in Leiter’s obituary, “[his photographs] are as much about evoking an atmosphere as nailing the decisive moment.”
A retrospective of the late photographer’s work has just began at The Photographers’ Gallery; the first major public show of his work in the UK features more than 100 works, including early black-and-white and colour photographs, sketchbooks and related materials.
While Leiter’s early black-and-white images were published in LIFE magazine and exhibited in New York and Tokyo, he quickly moved into fashion photography, shooting for Harper’s Bazaar, Elle, British Vogue, Esquire and more. When I speak to Brett Rogers, director of the Soho gallery since 2005, she tells me this goes some way towards accounting for Leiter’s undersized reputation at the time.
“Fashion photography’s always had a bad reputation for being a bit artificial and superficial, so museums didn’t take it very seriously. But he never thought of the images he took as fashion photographs – he was always just interested in composing an interesting image.”
His disdain for the photographic trends of the day pushed him towards his distinct use of colour. His ability to find hushed moments in a bustling metropolis perfectly complimented his expert command of colour; Leiter would combine a muted palette with soft focus, or stronger primary hues with deep shadows that enabled tones to pop with vibrancy. Sadly, this contributed to his being ignored by the photographic community, Rogers explains.
“I LIKE IT WHEN ONE IS NOT CERTAIN WHAT ONE SEES.” – SAUL LEITER
“Colour was associated with advertising, but in the 1950s he was showing that it could be an art form,” that the marriage of “photography and colour could be a powerful medium.” What now can be seen as a narrow-minded view was at the time widespread and meant that he didn’t have a gallerist until 2008, when Howard Greenberg took him on. Leiter’s irreverence, modesty and lack of ego (“unusual for a photographer”, Rogers notes) meant, in Rogers’ words, “he really didn’t give a stuff what other people thought of what he was doing”. Still, it is more than a little galling Leiter’s first exhibition in Europe wasn’t until 2008.