Saul Leiter @ The Photographer’s Gallery


This is an exhibition I see blind, making no preparation beforehand. The photographer’s name suggests a Jew; in fact, Leiter was the son of a rabbi. Does the ethnicity of a photographer matter? That is a question that might be pondered awhile but I am not going to at this moment. The fact that Leiter lived his life in New York certainly does influence the nature of his imagery.


Primarily, he had aspirations to be a painter rather than a photographer and this probably helped him in his fashion work that he undertook following the Second World War. He was an early proponent of colour photography and this exhibition might be understood as challenging the autonomy of William Eggleston who is generally considered to be the first colour photographer of note.
Leiter did not come to prominence as an iconic photographer until the end of his life. It was not until the mid-1990’s when he was in his 70’s that he walked into a gallery and showed his images. This lead to exhibitions of his work. Leiter died in 2013 aged 90.
His work is less documentary and adopts a more impressionistic attitude towards the photograph. As The Photographer’s Gallery leaflet says, “Leiter embraced a fluid, impressionistic style in his work and regarded himself as both a painter and photographer. He was drawn to shapes, shadows, surfaces and textures and was best known for his abstract and figurative New York street scenes.
Although Leiter knew both Cartier-Bresson and Doisneau, he was not greatly influenced by them although the same geometry of vision is often at work. Leiter went so far as to make his own copy of Doisneau’s famous “Kiss” which was presumably posed in a busy city street.
Brett Rogers writing about this exhibition in Loose Associations, A quarterly of The Photograpeher’s Gallery, quotes Leiter as saying “When we do not know why the photographer has taken the picture nor why we are looking at it, but all of a sudden we discover something we start then seeing … I like this confusion.” It seems he was exploring the nature of perspective itself. His visual references tended to be painters like Mondrian and Rothko. Leiter said “I think mysterious things happen in familiar place. We don’t need to run to the other end of the world.

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