Saul Leiter. Retrospektive. Katalog zur Ausstellung im Haus der Photographie, Deichtorhallen Hamburg, 2012.
“To be ignored is a great privilege.” In the years before his death in 2013 at the latest, some great exhibitions took away this privilege from Saul Leiter, who wrote this sentence. Sorry Saul.
I still remember how we went to the small but very fine Galerie Springer in Charlottenburg the day after Leiter’s death and looked at the wonderful little exhibition “WORKS 1949 – 1960 – Photography and Works on Paper”.
Anyone who missed the opportunity to get to know Leiter’s work in one of the exhibitions can catch up on it: on the one hand in the highly recommended photo books „Early Color“ and „Early Black and White“, but also in the volume that was published for the retrospective in Hamburg in 2012. The curators of the exhibition, Ingo Taubhorn and Brigitte Woischnik, published the splendid book – “Saul Leiter. Retrospective”- and it’s still available today.
With the selection of texts by well-known authors and the compilation of images from all of his creative directions, the editors intend to explain to us why we would do well to ignore Leiter’s wish to remain hidden: With the discovery of his photographic work, according to the authors, the history of photography had to be rewritten.
But let’s start from the beginning. In his brief biographical overview, Ingo Taubhorn describes how Leiter was born in 1923 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, into a very religious, Jewish environment; his father wanted him to become a rabbi. But he escaped from this world – to New York, into the fine arts – and into photography. He devoted himself to black and white photography, painted, began to photograph in color. But only as a fashion photographer for Harper’s Bazaar fashion magazine did he temporarily achieve a certain level of notoriety.
That sounds like the biography of an artist, as there may have been tens of thousands in New York. Because nobody, perhaps not even Saul Leiter himself, recognized what the book proves with convincing examples: His photographic work is a sensation. In the 1940s, photography was hardly considered an art form. It served mostly documentary and journalistic purposes, was little more than a craft.
Leiter changed the purpose of photography and raised it to the pedestal of art. “Saul Leiter is the painter among street photographers,” writes Rolf Nobel, and he explains how Leiter differs from the French and American founders of street photography: in his photographs, Leiter avoided the narrative and the documentary. Instead, his imagery is shaped by fragments and impressions, mixing elements of everyday life with abstract surfaces and shapes.
He shows a world of surfaces – and he expands, as Ulrich Rüter writes, “the view of an exploration of thinking and feeling.” All of this contributes to the fact that his pictures refuse to provide clear explanations. They cause confusion, are mysterious, lyrical, poetic: „I like it when you are not sure what you are seeing,“ says Leiter.
But the authors surprise us even more in the classification of Leiters color photographs in the history of photography: A few years ago, artistic color photography (as a technique it has been around for a surprisingly long time: since the middle of the 19th century) began with names like William Eggleston, Diane Arbus and Stephen Shore.
Leiter began doing this more than 20 years earlier, in 1948. Influenced, for example, by the action painting of Jackson Pollock or the color field painting by Mark Rothko, monochrome areas of color, colored objects – traffic signs, umbrellas, cars – shape the composition of his photographs.
The exciting selection of his photographs and paintings – some of the „classics“ that could be seen in the book „Early Color“ published by Steidl in 2006 have been omitted here – provides a deep insight into all aspects of the artistic work of Leiter: his black and white photography, color photography, fashion photography, painting. Two sketchbooks, which were integrated into the book in small format, are wonderful too. The texts by Ingo Taubhorn, Adam Harrison Levy, Ulrich Rüter, Vince Aletti, Carrie Springer, Rolf Nobel and Brigitte Woischnik illuminate the various aspects of Saul Leiter’s work in a knowledgeable manner and are well worth reading.
But two texts touched me the most: On the one hand, “Fridays with Saul” by Margit Erb, an employee of the Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York, which was largely responsible for the discovery of Leiter’s work. Erb describes her visits to Leiter’s Manhattan apartment, where he has lived for decades and which she describes as a haunted place. She describes his humor, his sarcasm, his charm, his weirdness, but also his everyday life and her work with him when looking at pictures with great sympathy.
On the other hand, there is “Homage to Soames Bantry”, a touching and warm-hearted text by Saul Leiter himself about his longtime partner, the great love of his life, an artist who never really received recognition and who died in 2002. Leiter was allowed to choose some of Soames Bantry’s works and present them both in the Hamburg exhibition and in the book accompanying the exhibition.
“We take ourselves too seriously. We’re not important enough to deserve that much attention, ” he once said. His plan to „just sink into oblivion“ almost succeeded.
Ingo Taubhorn, Brigitte Woischnik (eds.): Saul Leiter. Retrospektive. Katalog zur Ausstellung im Haus der Photographie, Deichtorhallen Hamburg, 2012.. German English. 296 pages. Kehrer Verlag, Heidelberg, Berlin 2012.
This text was first published by kwerfeldein.de in its original form.