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.
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.
First published in Issue 178