Poetic world of Saul Leiter’s images


Adam Harrison Levy recollects his meetings with Leiter, who, he is convinced, if didn’t exist, no one would be able to invent him. Thanks to Levy’s remarks we know more about the nature and habits of now famous photographer. Another great source of knowledge about the artist is his part-time assistant Magrit Erb, Leiter hired at some point overloaded by photos, books, paintings and mundane issues. She speaks interestingly about discovering colour photographs in the artist’s apartment and how from barely making ends meet, Leiter became a prominent figure in the international art scene. Curiously even though Edward Steichen included some twenty of Leiter’s photos in colour in his public lecture on relationships between painting and colour photography at MoMA in Feb 1957, they remained unpublished until 1996 when a NY gallery showed them. Another surprising fact, showing btw how important book publications might be, is that basically before 2006 when Gerhard Steidl produced the volume ‘Saul Leiter: Early Color’ edited by Martin Harrison, Leiter was practically unknown. After the book’s release all suddenly changed – constantly ringing phone, sold works and exhibitions (first at Milwaukee Museum of Art and then Fondation Cartier-Bresson in Paris).

I particularly like the essay by Rolf Nobel titled ‘The street as a stage’ as it examines the core of Leiter’s practice – his street photography. ‘As the name suggests, street photography takes place out on the street. But not just there. Rather, it covers all of the public space, which is symbolized in this case by the street. Street photography also takes place in semi-public spaces such as cafés, bars and stores – writes Nobel – Street photographers consider the street, that most public of public spaces, as their stage. For them, the street reflects all the many different facets of urban life. And the focus is not just on that unrepeatable moment. Because although that moment will probably never recur in that form, street photography is meant to describe more than just that momentary scenario and point beyond the unique moment in time.’ Saul Leiter was very curious about the city and people living in it so he often took his camera and just walked for hours, taking lots of photos in the streets of NY and snapping simple scenes. I like the way he played with mirrors and reflections, his peculiar way of observing the street from behind a café window. I love his images of New York in the rain or covered by snow, spots of colours and poetic diffusions. The selection of photos in the book is impressive, not only wide but also representative – shows how authentic Leiter was. His practice lacked planning or staging, he said once: I usually go out looking for things and I tend to react to what I find. Street photography can be sometimes trivial or aggressive, Saul Leiter turned it into poetry.

The ‘Retrospective’ also features Leiter’s fashion photography – photo shoots for Harper’s Bazaar, which he started collaborating with in 1958, invited by the new art director Henry Wolf. Leiter enjoyed working for fashion and made a living in it. The results are really fantastic! And last but not least – Saul Leiter’s paintings, which I must confess I’m not a fan of although there are some interesting links between his photos and canvases, like the use and understanding of colour or balancing between abstraction and figuration. Some photos were even used as grounds for painterly collages.

Saul Leiter was supposed to become an Orthodox rabbi (like his father), but chose to move to New York because it was the artistic life that did call to him. Even thought he was a self-taught artist and gained recognition in the end of his life, his oeuvre is an important part of the history of photography. His approach was sometimes compared to jazz, due to its improvisational character. ‘Saul Leiter – Retrospective’ published by Kehrer and edited by Ingo Taubhorn and Brigitte Woischnik is far from improvisation.  Every detail in this extensive exploration of Saul Leiter’s oeuvre has been perfectly thought out.


Saul Leiter, Restrospective, editors: Ingo Taubhorn, Brigitte Woischnik, Kehrer


Saul Leiter, introduction by Max Kozloff, Thames & Hudson

Saul Leiter. Early Color, Preface by Martin Harrison, Steidl

Saul Leiter. Early Black and White, edited by Max Kozloff, Steidl

IN NO GREAT HURRY. 13 Lessons in Life with Saul Leiter – a documentary by British film-maker Thomas Leach