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Saul Leiter, quiet radical

A new exhibition of his photographs shows how his reticence fed his originality

Simon Willis | January 25th 2016

Among the photographs on show in “Saul Leiter”, a new exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery in London, are three featuring red umbrellas. In one, from 1955, the umbrella is seen through a snow-dusted car window. In another, from 1951, the umbrella takes up the whole bottom half of the image, a vibrant panel of colour. In the third, from 1958, a woman in a grey dress and dark coat walks down the street, the ground covered with slushy snow, the whitewashed window behind her scrawled with graffiti. At the top is the bright circle of her umbrella obscuring her face and shoulders, angled against the weather. 

“Red umbrella”, 1958

These pictures encapsulate Leiter’s photographic style. New York, the city where he lived and worked until his death in 2013 at the age of 89, is glimpsed through windows, reflected in mirrors or metal surfaces (“Taxi, New York”, 1957, top), or partly concealed by shop awnings or iron railings. He composed with colour, often in large, abstract fields like in a painting by Rothko. And the figures in his pictures are often seen only in part: a foot on a seat on the El train, a hazy passerby captured through a doorway blurred by condensation. “Photographs are often treated as important moments,” he says in a quotation shown on the wall of the gallery, “but really they are little fragments or souvenirs of an unfinished world.”  

Leiter was born in Pittsburgh in 1923, and moved to New York to be a painter in the 1940s. There he met the photographer Edward Steichen, and soon he was making his living with his camera. Steichen chose some of Leiter’s black-and-white pictures for “The Family of Man”, a photo exhibition he curated at MoMA in 1953. But it was as a fashion photographer, working for magazines like Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, that Leiter became best known. His street photography, taken for himself and shot mainly in the neighbourhood where he lived, the East Village, was hardly seen until 2006, when a book of his pictures, “Early Colour”, was published by Steidl. It was followed in 2014 by “Early Black and White”. These photographs, taken from the 1940s to the 1960s –  the same period covered by the show at the Photographers’ Gallery – have established him, belatedly, as a pioneer of colour street photography.

“Canopy”, 1957

Not that he thought of himself that way. In a documentary about Leiter, “In No Great Hurry” (2013), he is described as a man with “a disdain for self-promotion”. The film opens with Leiter reading a newspaper, wearing a rumpled plaid shirt. “I just take pictures…that’s not such a great achievement,” he says. “What makes anyone think I’m any good? I actually am sometimes very good, but I shouldn’t brag about it.” 

In the new exhibition you can see how his reticence fed his originality. In many of his pictures there’s a feeling of hiddenness – of the photographer working in the shadows and peeping out at the world. But it’s that viewpoint that gives his work its compositional drama. In “Canopy” (1957), most of the frame is taken up by the dark canvas above a shop window. Only at the bottom, below the canopy’s ragged edge, do we see a thin strip of street, a white snow scene with hunched, walking figures. In a set of untitled pictures from the 1970s, there’s one of a group of people perched on the back of a tram, as seen through the windscreen from inside a car, letterboxed between the black of the dashboard and the roof.

He brought this distinctive way of looking to his fashion work as well. In pictures taken for Harper’s Bazaar in 1958, his model, Carol Brown, is photographed in a purple hat behind what appears to be a window or a pane of glass, blurring her head and overlaying it with gauzy, pale patches reflected in the surface. In another shot, she’s wearing a pea-green coat, leaning against a car painted in a shade of teal. Taking up the right half of the picture is some kind of board or panel, also teal, being moved by a workman, whose sleeve, in a blue overall, you can see gripping it. Sure, it’s a picture about the coat. But, as in all Leiter’s photographs, it’s mainly about the colour. 

Saul Leiter Photographers’ Gallery, London, to April 3rd

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