Do you know about this photography pioneer?

Saul Leiter shot in colour years before William Eggleston. A new retrospective reassesses his work
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Taxi, 1957, by Saul Leiter. © Saul Leiter Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York
Taxi, 1957, by Saul Leiter. © Saul Leiter Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York

“In order to build a career and to be successful, one has to be determined,” reflected the American photographer Saul Leiter shortly before his death in 2013 at the age of 89. “One has to be ambitious. Now, I much prefer to drink coffee, listen to music and to paint when I feel like it.”

Leiter knew a thing or two about ambition, arriving in New York in 1946, just as the Abstract Expressionists were establishing themselves at the vanguard of progressive painting.

 

Postmen, 1952 by Saul Leiter © Saul Leiter Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York
Postmen, 1952 by Saul Leiter © Saul Leiter Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York

Leiter himself had wanted to join them, but turned instead to photography, and switched from black-and-white to colour film in 1948, decades before polychromatic photographs were taken seriously in fine-art circles.

Indeed, Leiter was criticized for favouring colour over black-and-white film, and found greater success shooting for magazines such as Esquire and Harpers Bazaar.

More recently, however, many within the art world have started to recognise the importance of his pictures, as a kind of photographic corollary to Abstract Expressionism. A forthcoming retrospective at The Photographers’ Gallery, running 22 January - 3 April, will present over 100 works, including than 100 works, including early black-and-white photographs, sketchbooks and ephemera, as well as the lyrical colour images he favoured.

 

Foot on El, 1954 by Saul Leiter © Saul Leiter Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York
Foot on El, 1954 by Saul Leiter © Saul Leiter Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York

Unlike the bright, poppy 1970s colour work of Stephen Shore and William Eggleston, who are generally regarded as polychromatic photography’s pioneers, Leiter’s images possess a limpid, impressionistic quality, in keeping with his contemporaries.

“I like it when one is not certain what one sees,” he once said. “When we do not know why the photographer has taken a picture and when we do not know why we are looking at it, all of a sudden we discover something that we start seeing. I like this confusion.”

 

Snow, 1960, by Saul Leiter © Saul Leiter Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York
Snow, 1960, by Saul Leiter © Saul Leiter Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York

Gallery goers can take in this confusion first-hand, when the show opens later this month. For greater insight into photography through the ages buy a copy of The Photography Book; and for more on photographic image making within fine-art circles, get Photography Today.


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