If you don’t know Saul Leiter where have you been? His colour photography has been the delight of many photographers for years. There is a retrospective of his work at The Photographers Gallery but only until April 3rd
It seems an irony that Saul Leiter always considered himself more a painter than a photographer. Firstly, because it was the latter that made his name. Secondly, because he was pretty bad at the former. Leiter moved to New York in the 1940s, soaked up the abstract expressionist scene, and occasionally showed his twitchy, garish, overworked paintings in galleries in the East Village.
Fortunately, alongside the art exhibitions, he also visited a show of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photography in 1947. Soon after, he bought a Leica and started taking pictures on the city’s streets. And out of an alchemical relationship between the two disciplines, there came a long and astonishing body of photographic work defined by a kind of elegant, painterly formalism.
Some people might be drawn to the people in these pictures: the kissing couples, the stooped men in raincoats. But Leiter was always more poet than documentarian. Taking his cues from Mark Rothko’s colour fields, Leiter’s photographs became increasingly defined by broad, abstracted planes of colour. This reached extremes in images like ‘Purple Umbrella’: the webbed rim of the umbrella fills just the upper quarter of the image; the rest is an out-of-focus sidewalk. It’s stark, bold and astounding.
Leiter’s other great achievement was making an aesthetic virtue of all the advertising that filled the Big Apple. Pictures of neon signs shimmering in puddles and billboards reflected in shop fronts make for an exquisite kind of shorthand for the urban experience. It’s never quite a human New York that he captures. But it isn’t half stylish.