Saul Leiter at The Photographers’ Gallery

Like many people I was familiar with Saul Leiter’s work – but I didn’t know it as well as I should have, but then who did? So much of his personal work had remained hidden until just before his death in 2013.

This exhibition acts – in a time where concept rules – as a much-needed reminder of how a photographer can engage with the world around them and in doing reveal to us how complex, contradictory, compelling, beautiful, alienating and chaotic life can be.

The exhibition opens with his early black and white work, which is even less known then the colour that followed. It is, I suppose, inevitable that any early user of colour film will be compared with William Eggleston, such is the great mans gravitational influence; for his part Leiter certainly matches up, although in many ways the Leiter has been treated harshly by “establishment”, as he preceded Eggleston by some years and so should be hailed as a master in his own right. Both men are very much the product of their environments: Eggleston the crisp defining southern light – Leiter the often subtler, diffused New York winter variety. A painter turned photography Leiter prowled the streets of New York, which through his lens became an immense, living breathing Abstract Expressionist canvas.

While there is a sense of gentleness in his images – which is partly due to his photographing through misted window or in the subdued yet luminous light of a snowstorm – he captures the grittiness of life in the metropolis. His images are more claustrophobic than Eggleston’s; there are no vistas or wide open blue sky; making Leiter somewhat closer, psychologically, to Robert Frank – there is a quiet sadness and sense of alienation in his images.

People in Leiter’s photographs are usually alone, small and against a background of bright but grubby buildings or battling the elements; framed by a window or deliberately cropped out of the image leaving only a hand or foot to be seen. The singular figures convey the sense of isolation one can feel in a city of millions.

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©Saul Leiter

In one of the most memorable images of this type, a monochrome: a young woman is placed in the bottom left of the frame, she looks distant, preoccupied and unhappy; above her, running in a dark blur diagonally across the fame is some type of solid, heavy structure, in the top right the impression of some buildings – as sign of the city – perhaps it is the weight of the city that is crushing her spirit, trapping her in her isolation.

When occasionally seen in pairs, people tend to be incomplete elements of complex and fragmented scenes. Leiter often employs reflection in windows to create elaborate collages, which shows the viewer what is happening on both sides of the glass. In so doing we are invited to untangle the varied, knotted strands that is social interaction, a complexity and messiness that is intensified when one lives among millions of strangers.

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©Saul Leiter

The experience of city living, whether in Leiter’s 1950’s or the modern day is essentially unchanged and so Leiter’s New York becomes an archetypal city, it is easily recognizable to any current city dweller, we can understand its language, feel its rhythms and recognise the effects of its cold indifference.

There are a third set of images in the show: nudes. Exclusively black and white, Leiter’s penchant for obscuring features and parts of the body is evident her too. Again there is tenderness to the images, in some an obvious erotic element too, but there is no vulgarity or the objectification that is sometimes evident in female nudes produced by men. The other subset here are nudes that Leiter has painted over. Usually such images would not hold my attention, but these did. That they are such high quality photographs to begin with provides a very solid foundation for embellishment, in some it seems almost a shame to paint over them. But, combined with the attention of a painter they taken on a new life. They are imbued with a sense of energy, a tension that actually does bring something exciting to them – it makes them vital.

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©Saul Leiter

What Leiter does brilliantly is to not only depict a place and a time but also help us to feel a place and a time, in all of its wonderful, chaotic beauty – he commented that he sought to depict beauty, as unfashionable as that is, without apology. This seems fitting for a man who mixed with Arbus, Winnogrand and the other grandees of the New York school, but never received the same accolades, even though they are richly deserved.


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