PRINT Summer 2013


Saul Leiter, String,ca. 1955, gelatin silver print, 9 3.4 x 9 3/4".

So the days pass and I ask myself sometimes whether one is not hypnotized, as a child by a silver globe, by life; and whether this is living. It’s very quick, bright, exciting. But superficial perhaps. I should like to take the globe in my hands and feel it quietly, round, smooth, heavy, and so hold it, day after day. I will read Proust I think. I will go backwards and forwards.
—Virginia Woolf, November 28, 1928

IN 2006, AFTER A TEN-YEAR SEARCH for a publisher, New York’s Howard Greenberg Gallery persuaded Steidl to issue Saul Leiter’s first book, Early Color. This monograph, which has just reappeared in a fourth edition, contains roughly eighty photographs taken as color slides predominantly in the 1940s and ’50s (with several dating from 1960). Retrieved by Leiter only decades later, and nearly all printed for the first time, the pictures emerged as a revelatory pageant. As if by a flash of lightning, the book established Leiter, born in 1923, as a pioneer of color photography, as astute, avid, and inventive as any of his better-known colleagues, contemporaries, and successors.

Leiter’s color photographs can seem at once reticent and ecstatic, playful and contemplative. Spanning the years, they qualify, for this viewer, as the work of a consummate “termite artist”—Manny Farber’s unglamorous term for a quietly obsessive lone artist nibbling away at a particular corner of experience, nourished by curiosity and an ever-renewable capacity for aesthetic discovery. Signature Leiter moves—everywhere apparent in this portfolio of previously unpublished pictures—include shooting through fog-blurred or rain-streaked windows, catching figures in shadow or from behind, focusing on hands and feet rather than faces, integrating frames within frames, allowing reflections and bold blurred shapes to tangle and fill out the compositions.

Japanese prints and the paintings of Vuillard and Bonnard have been invoked, with Leiter’s approval, as precursors for the photographer’s flattened spaces, sharply angled perspectives, and muted, slashed, or flame-like color. And you don’t need a course on Matisse or Manet to recognize the cleverness in using bands and blocks of pure black to ignite a picture’s palette—a standard Leiter strategy, singularly effective, and rare in early photographic color. Looking closer to home, you might also see an affinity between Leiter’s photos and the brilliant breezy layouts of Al Parker, the ace American illustrator who introduced radical cropping and a near-abstract flatness into paintings adorning major magazines in the years leading up to Leiter’s hit-and-miss career as a fashion photographer.

There is, in any case, an inescapable element of nostalgia adhering to the midcentury details caught on the fly in his early color work—in men’s hats and overcoats, sylphlike female silhouettes, window displays smoldering among shards of reflected street signage. We’re not accustomed to seeing this world in color. The tug of nostalgia can even seem to reach past the point of the photographs’ origins. Todd Haynes has gone out of his way to credit Leiter as the primary visual inspiration for his 2011 HBO mini­series, Mildred Pierce [see, e.g., Amy Taubin’s interview with Haynes, “Daughter Dearest,” Artforum, March 2011], though that story played out in the ’30s, a decade before the photographer took up a camera. That said, the sense of dislocation in a Leiter image, something like that evoked by Cubist collage and fragmentation, also accounts for the way his pictures can seem to jump forward in time, appearing more contemporary than they happen to be. The images on view here have been plucked from a cache of recently retrieved color and black-and-white photos, shot between the late ’40s and late ’60s but printed only recently. In one modestly glorious image, from around 1948, Philip Guston seems to have stepped in from the subsequent decade to soap up a shopwindow with a broad brush, creating a swirling AbEx cloud that constitutes the photo’s thrilling main event.

This summer, Steidl is publishing Saul Leiter: Early Black and White, a two-volume follow-up to the photographer’s first book. Among the surprises in this extraordinary array of newly exhumed works is a distinctive psychological ingredient: Many images focus on faces and seem more intimate, more interior, than those in the previous collection, granting a more personal chronicle than Early Color allowed. Sober and respectful portraits of Leiter’s family, from the ’40s, give way to more expressive and antic character studies, including a range of self-portraits. The black-and-white pictures also reveal that Leiter—who thinks of himself as a painter no less than as a photographer—stood in close proximity to major artists of his generation, friends and acquaintances who aggressively made their mark while Leiter was barely getting by. Leiter photographed Merce Cunningham and John Cage, Andy Warhol and his mother (around 1950, when Warhol was a fledgling fashion illustrator, newly arrived in New York), Lotte Lenya, and (only the title cues us to his identity) a seemingly anonymous man hunched in a café, his back to the camera, a hat crowning his head: Marcel Duchamp. There’s also a particularly strong image of W. Eugene Smith, circa 1950, looking as tightly wound as a convict contemplating a prison break, and a picture of a careworn Diane Arbus, circa 1970, roughly a year before her suicide.

Saul Leiter, Pipes, ca. 1960, C-print, 14 x 11".

Perhaps the most surprising of the early black-and-white pictures are a number of nudes that are also portraits. In the best of them, the interaction between photographer and subject implies an absolute intimacy. Paul Strand’s remarkable portraits of his wife Rebecca, taken during the ’20s, share a similar charge of candor and complicity, but there aren’t that many other precedents for these nudes, which also display a refreshing teasing quality, receptiveness measured by alternating currents of vulnerability and sass. In 1960, Leiter settled into something approximating domestic bliss with a painter and erstwhile fashion model named Soames Bantry. (Until her death in 2002, they resided in separate apartments at the same East Village address where Leiter still lives.) Soames’s long, folded body occupies a shadow-streaked bed in one of the most abstract of Leiter’s nudes, Soames, ca. 1969, which appears on this page.

Having weathered decades of neglect, Leiter can be forgiven for appearing strenuously wary and self-deprecating in Tomas Leach’s 2012 documentary, In No Great Hurry, throughout which this modern master keeps insisting he’s not a fit subject for a film. The fact remains that Leiter, nearing ninety, exemplifies a life of heroic steadfastness, and his late-blooming career happens to be really taking off. More books are forthcoming; his first full-career retrospective, organized by Deichtorhallen Hamburg and recently on view at Kunst Haus Wien, travels to Fotografie Forum Frankfurt in spring 2014, and a show including newly printed color photographs is currently on view at Fifty One gallery in Antwerp (through July 13), soon to be joined by an exhibition of his paintings and photographs at HackleBury Fine Art, London (June 6–July 27).

So the days pass, and Saul Leiter’s alert eye and belatedly emerging body of work continue to distill the perceptual clatter, the daily parade of impressions and feelings, the hypnotic bright quick things that only a very gifted artist can catch and describe. Just look.

Michael Almereyda is a New York–based writer and filmmaker.

Saul Leiter, Mannequin, ca. 1952, C-print, 14 x 11".

Saul Leiter, Mr., ca. 1958, C-print, 14 x 11".

Saul Leiter, Red Curtain, ca. 1956, C-print, 14 x 11".

Saul Leiter, Menu, Paris, 1959, C-print, 14 x 11".

Saul Leiter, Ant, ca. 1950, C-print, 11 x 14".