Saul Leiter

The Photographer's Gallery, Somerset House & Hackelbury Fine Art, London, UK

03_Press Image l Saul Leiter, Carol Brown, Harper’s Bazaar, ca. 1958web.jpg

Saul Leiter, Carol Brown, Harper’s Bazaar, c.1958, photograph

Saul Leiter, Carol Brown, Harper’s Bazaar, c.1958, photograph. Courtesy the artist and Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York


Moments can take a while to arrive, but Saul Leiter is certainly having one now. Too late for him – the American photographer died in 2013 – but three overlapping exhibitions at The Photographers’ Gallery, Somerset House and Hackelbury Fine Art are a clear acknowledgment of the quietly insistent growth of his position within postwar photography. The film director Todd Haynes has spoken of the debt his recent adaptation of Carol (2015) owes  to Leiter’s work; yet, while this relationship was supposedly the basis of ‘Through a Lens’, a small display at Somerset House, it was scarcely visible. Haynes is known to spend  a great deal of time creating ‘image books’  for his films – extensive compendia in which he gathers photographs, film stills, advertising and other visual materials to help establish the necessary tone and textures. Some  of Leiter’s photographs were included in the image book for Carol, although unfortunately the book wasn’t on display here. Leiter’s photographs presented his familiar tropes – reflections, clearly, and downtown Manhattan windows turned less-than-translucent, dislocated fragments of faces or hands held.  In contrast, the film stills by unit photographer Wilson Webb settled adoringly upon actors Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, locating them wholly, centrally, within the frame. ‘A photograph of a window covered  in raindrops interests me more than a photograph of a famous person,’ Leiter once said.  If the film was about an opportunity almost missed, here one surely was. 

Many of the same Leiter photographs can be seen at the retrospective that opened at The Photographers’ Gallery shortly afterwards, an exhibition perhaps larger and more ambitious than the space made available to it. This show also contains early black and white photographs, ephemera and some of Leiter’s small-scale paintings, more of which can also be seen across town at Hackelbury Fine Art. Much is made of the importance of painting  to Leiter’s practice although this seems to reveal less about the work itself and more about the persistent insecurities of some within photography. The colours are often clean enough that the works could be used as paint charts – Green Light, Cobalt Violet Deep Hue, Quinacridone Red – yet, for all their supposed boldness, their intimate scale and hesitant touch is perhaps more apparent. The paintings – their making – may have brought Leiter joy; no doubtthey bring joy  to some others now, but not to me.

Saul Leiter_The Rock, c. 1975_Gouache, casein and watercolour on paperweb.jpg

Saul Leiter, The Rock, c.1975, gouache, casein and watercolour on paper, 38 × 30 cm

Saul Leiter, The Rock, c.1975, gouache, casein and watercolour on paper, 38 × 30 cm. Courtesy the artist, HackelBury Fine Art, London, and Saul Leiter Foundation, New York

Perhaps Leiter found more contentment in his Sennelier paint tubes than in the East Village or, at least, more often, more readily, but the paintings lack the sophistication found in the photographs. Yet, there is something simple in the photographs, too, their sophistication casually caught and lightly held. Here are incidentals, noticed as if on a lunch break and, indeed, they are reminiscent of the ‘Lunch Poems’ (1964) of Frank O’Hara, the ‘hum-coloured cabs’ and ‘neon in daylight’ caught while ‘strolling through the noisy splintered glare of a Manhattan noontide’. (They also shared a neighbourhood, these two, and what the New Statesman critic Francis Hope once dismissively called O’Hara’s ‘puppyish charm’, as well, perhaps, as a reticence to pursue the big break.) Leiter’s photographs  often collapse the city’s space into collisions of colour and text, most notably in his use of reflections; we might not know whether we are looking through a window or into a mirror and, frequently, it is both: a shop window ‘silvered’  by the darkness within. We look in one direction and see another. Our view is often baffled like this, or slowed by a dissolute veil of condensation upon which the image refuses wholly to condense. Even at his most direct, the scene is left mostly unseen, such as the predella-like bands beneath the expanses of black and white in Canopy (c.1958) and Kutztown (1948) respectively. This is Leiter’s achievement and also his limitation: a diffidence into which he settled  and could perhaps do no other.

The claims for these images are grand, yet their achievements are more modest. When asked about his work, Leiter commented: ‘He’s very uneven, you know, but sometimes he does something which is rather good.’ As with nearly all his reflections, this one’s rather good, too.

Jeremy Millar is an artist based in Whitstable, UK, and art tutor in art criticism at the Royal College of Art, London, UK. 

Issue 178

First published in Issue 178

April 2016

Most Read

In further news: white supremacist vandals attack Rothko Chapel; Israeli minister bans art produced in solidarity with...
To experience the music of the composer, who passed away last week at the age of 69, was to hear something tense,...
In a year charged with politicized tensions, mastery of craft trumps truth-to-power commentary
The US writer, who died last week, brought a quality of inestimable importance to the modern novel: a mind that was...
The $21M painting was the highest price ever paid for a work by a living African American artist at auction
Royal bodies, the ‘incel’ mindset and those Childish Gambino hot-takes: what to read this weekend
In further news: women wearing rainbow badges beaten in Beijing’s 798; gallerists Georg Kargl and Richard Gray have...
‘Coping as a woman in France is a daily battle: the aggression can be subtle, and you always have to push harder to...
The rapper and artist have thoughts about originality in art; Melania Trump tries graphic design – all the latest...
The dilapidated Nissen hut from which Rachel Whiteread will take a cast
Yorkshire residents complain that the concrete sculpture of a ‘Nissen hut’ will attract excrement, vandalism and litter
Poul Erik Tøjner pays tribute to Denmark’s most important artist since Asger Jorn
Toyin Ojih Odutola’s portraits of a fictional aristocratic Nigerian family push toward an expanded definition...
Photographer Dragana Jurisic says her account was deactivated after she uploaded an artwork depicting a partially naked...
In further news: open letter protests all-male shortlist for BelgianArtPrize; Arts Council of Ireland issues...
From Sol Calero’s playful clichés of Latin America to an homage to British modernist architect Alison Smithson
Everybody’s favourite underpaid, over-educated, raven-haired art critic, Rhonda Lieberman, is as relevant as ever
‘Prize & Prejudice’ at London's UCL Art Museum is a bittersweet celebration of female talent
The curators want to rectify the biennale’s ‘failure to question the hetero-normative production of space’; ‘poppers...
A fragment of the brutalist Robin Hood Gardens will go on show at the Venice Architecture Biennale
‘Women's role in shaping the history of contemporary art is being reappraised’
Three shows in Ireland celebrate the legendary polymath, artist and author of Inside the White Cube
The legendary performance artists will partner up again to detail their tumultuous relationship in a new book
An open letter signed by over 100 leading artists including 15 Turner prize-winners says that new UK education policy...
Naturists triumph at art gallery; soothing students with colouring books; Kanye’s architectural firm: your dose of art...
Avengers: Infinity War confirms the domination of mass culture by the franchise: what ever happened to narrative...
The agency’s founder talks about warfare in the age of post truth, deconstructing images and holding states and...
From hobnobbing with Oprah to championing new art centres, millennial crown prince Mohammed bin Salman is following a...
A juror for the award last year, Dan Fox on why the Turner Prize is and always will be political (whatever that means)
The argument that ancestral connection offers a natural grasp of the complex histories and aesthetics of African art is...
One of most iconic and controversial writers of the past 40 years, Tom Wolfe discusses writing, art and intellectual...

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

March 2018

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018