Ordinary Beauty: Revisiting Saul Leiter's pioneering images

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While his contemporaries included the likes of William Klein, Diane Arbus and Robert Frank, Leiter’s work didn’t fit neatly beside theirs and shrugged off any kind of directional impulses. This distance from established talent extended industry-wide, Rogers tells me. John Szarkowski, the MoMA curator who defined the photographic era, was a powerful influence in recognising trends and making photographers stars and “pushed the documentary position favoured by Diane Arbus and Robert Frank – he chose not to look at people like Leiter.”

Leiter did however have a clear inspiration outside of photography. As Brigitte Woischnik, co-curator of the exhibition says, “the biggest influence in his life was always the paint.” Leiter’s first foray into the artistic scene was as a painter – disappointing his religious parents by disappearing to New York at 23 in pursuit of creative fulfilment. It was here that he was introduced to the abstraction of contemporary painting by Richard Pousette-Dart, a member of the Abstract Expressionist movement of the 1940s and 50s who had a great impact on him.

Carol Brown, Harper’s Bazaar, ca. 1958
Carol Brown, Harper’s Bazaar, ca. 1958
 
Snow, 1960
Snow, 1960
 

While Henri Cartier-Bresson and Eugene Smith left serious impressions on the younger Leiter, for Rogers the painterly strain in his work leaves a clearer mark. “I see his as much more of a painter’s eye. As I was walking through the halls of the Metropolitan Museum’s 20th century collections, I thought to myself, ’he would have seen all of these paintings’. The soft impressionist passages and the cubist perspectives he would have encountered in the Met and the MoMA influenced him.” Despite Leiter turning to photography, he never stopped painting – some of his painted nudes are being exhibited alongside his images at the Photographer’s Gallery.

The qualities that made his contemporaries ignore him – his complex use of colour, his blurring of genres, his relaxed gaze – are perhaps what make his work feel so excitingly contemporary today. His influence is seen in the more languid style of modern street photography, in the respect fashion photography commands, and even in cinema; director Todd Haynes cited Leiter as a visual influence when making Carol, his recent film starring Cate Blanchett.

In a 2009 interview, Leiter attempted to sum up his work, remarking: “it’s quite possible that my work represents a search for beauty in the most prosaic and ordinary places. One doesn’t have to be in some faraway dreamland in order to find beauty.”

This, says Rogers, is perhaps the main thing photographers can learn from Leiter’s work and approach.

“I think the amazing thing is that his photographs were all taken within a couple of miles of where he lived. He didn’t need to take too many steps out of Greenwich Village to make these extraordinary images. I think that’s a great lesson for photographers who think you need to go to exotic places. You don’t – you [just] need to refine your vision; usually you can find everything on your doorstep.”

Through Boards, ca. 1957
Through Boards, ca. 1957
 
Harlem, 1960
Harlem, 1960
 
Daughter of Milton Abery, 1950
Daughter of Milton Abery, 1950
 

 
Saul Leiter: Retrospective is on the Photographer’s Gallery until the 3rd April 2016. Entrance free before 12 noon £2.50/£2 advance booking £3/£2.50 on door.
Exhibition organised in collaboration with the Deichtorhallen Hamburg – House of Photography and curated by Ingo Taubhorn, curator, House of Photography/Deichtorhallen Hamburg and curator Brigitte Woischnik.
thephotographersgallery.org.uk
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