Review: Saul Leiter: Retrospective @ The Photographer’s Gallery, London


Leiter’s disposition as a photographer can be summarised by the quote: ‘It is not where it is or what it is that matters, but how you see it.’ The citation is printed on the gallery wall, which boards his early works integrating blurry shots with stark uses of contrast. You can almost feel the hot air from fusty subway grates or hear the hustle and bustle of New Yorkers when looking at Leiter’s prints. Like most seasoned street photographers, Leiter captures an atmosphere – the uncertainty felt by Americans post World War II in mid-20th century New York.

Saul Leiter was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and moved to New York in 1946 to become a painter and photographer. His reflex as a painter influenced much of his work, particularly his colour photography. And while he documented habitual life in New York he managed to capture a strong and defining vibe even photographing monotonous actions.

As a street photographer, Leiter’s work appears virtually accidental, like throwaway shots capturing blurred moments and out of focus images. And it strangely gives one confidence to know that not all error shots are necessarily bad shots. In much of his street photography, Leiter focuses on one individual. For example his shot titled Daughter of Milton Avery frames a timid-looking woman into the bottom left corner of the frame while out of focus New York apartments fill the top right corner. Lester intentionally captures an asymmetrical composition enhancing the drabness of the scene.

For part of his career, Leiter worked as a fashion photographer with his work filling the pages of Harper’s Bazaar, British Vogue and other publications. His fashion work didn’t embrace the conventional shots but rather he drew on cubist perspectives. The first image that appears in Google when searching Saul Leiter and fashion is that of Carol Brown taken in 1958. The mollified blur on the image draws attention to the soft beauty of the model and while she’s not in focus she remains the cynosure of the photo.

The 19th and 20th century practice of hand colouring photographs also features in Leiter’s work. While most of the exhibition is purely photographic the chapter Painted Photographs of Nudes offers a refreshing variation. Many of the photographs were taken in a domestic environment, the subdued yellows, oranges and blues that trace over the nude female forms still allowing for the pleasure of uncertainty.

Lester was a pioneer of colour photography; it was almost exclusively used for advertising and fashion until the 1970s but Leiter was using it as early as 1948. Often the ensuing images contain delicate, muted colours like those found on vintage postcards.

It seems Saul Leiter was not interested in promoting himself, abandoning his well-paid job as a fashion photographer. However his photographs offer an insight into the genesis of colour photography and his abstract approach to street photography. In this manifold exhibition of the painter, street and fashion photographer, perhaps the greatest take away is the potential of  ‘blooper’ shots.

We give it a juicy 4 / 5 mangos.

Saul Leiter: Retrospective is showing at The Photographer’s Gallery until April 3, 2016.

For more details about the gallery see below:

The Photographers’ Gallery
16 – 18 Ramillies St,
London W1F 7LW
Telephone: 020 7087 9300

Opening Times: Mon – Sat 10.00 – 18.00, Thu 10.00 – 20.00 during exhibitions, Sun 11.00 – 18.00