Saul Leiter : Lessons in life from a man of nuance

The work of Saul Leiter was rediscovered, with his street photographs brought to light in the 1990s.
His photos of New York (from as early as 1948) earned him a significant reputation in the latter years of his life, especially for his use of colour.

Yet in the film devoted to him by Tomas Leach, he cheerfully debunks his status as a pioneer of colour, "close to the pictorial movement of abstract expressionism."

He says: "I've been described as being a pioneer. I don't know if I'm a pioneer. Eventually it will turn out that many people did color... If you know enough about photography, you'll realize that nothing is really that new."

Then  "Maybe I'm part of a small group... I don't know, I don't care."(laughs)

Doubtless there's a modicum of false modesty in these words.
But certainly there's a genuine distrust of ready-made ideas and labels. 
This discreet man was of course embarrassed to see a statue erected during his lifetime. But he also knew the meaning of words, and without excessive modesty, didn't accept a lack of nuance, including in his praise.
This mistrust was a lifelong default setting, steering him away from easy recognition and small talk.

However, what might be termed the "Vivian Meier syndrome" does not apply here.
Unlike this photographer, her works were not discovered until after her death.
Saul Leiter's first street photos were indeed recognized and exhibited during his lifetime, and even when he was only 29, at the MoMA, with the Always the Young Strangers exhibition. 
So photography provided an income throughout his life.

Saul Leiter was born in Pittsburgh in 1923. He is one of the sons of a renowned rabbi, "a light in the diaspora", according to Saul. But Saul was somewhat oppressed by this tutelary figure. 
Still, Leiter began studying theology in Cleveland with some success, following his father's wishes.
But at age 23 he decided to interrupt those studies and reject this predetermined fate. In 1946 he left Cleveland for New York, where he devoted himself to painting. 

Several times, when talking of his father, he betrays the harshness of the disapproval he endured.
In fact Saul Leiter uses this charmingly sad euphemism: "The Leiter family is not as familiar with the notion of kindness (…) as they should have been."
We can therefore imagine the sense of rupture and liberation felt by this young man, arriving alone in New York, and soon becoming friends with the circles of the pictorial avant-garde.

In this new life, he discovered (in 1947, at the MoMA) the photographs of Henri Cartier-Bresson, which had a decisive impact on him.
It was also during this period that one of his friends, the painter Richard Pousette-Dart, encouraged him to photograph.
The fact is that these early New York years led him to photograph and to paint, to be close to the pictorial movement of abstract expressionism, and to regularly meet famous figures of this avant-garde.



As a photographer, it is easy to notice, even in his early black and white works, an almost painterly flat technique, obtained by various means.

First of all by bold shifts in framing, which gave pride of place to "surfaces" in his compositions, humans sometimes appearing only in the margins, more motif than subject.
Then, more pictorial effects:, by taking pictures through misted or rain-bespattered windows, creating a texture, a runoff on the viewing surface. 
In some photographs one might evoke Barnett Newman's zips, as the flat areas in the foreground only reveal the "photographic" reality in the form of a slit streaking the image.
But there's still more; the use of tight framing disturbing the relationship of successive shots, steady lights that flatten the volumes, the snow and its large white areas reminiscent of the blank canvas...
Add to all this a colour rendering that belongs in 1950s movies (he sometimes used out-of-date stock to save money).

Saul's eye is pictorial and tends towards abstraction, at least through this artistic approach.

But whenever people referred to the pictorial nature of his photographs, he would be sure to remind them of this fundamental difference:

Photography is about finding things. And painting is different, it’s about making something.
Saul Leiter

Is this a need for humility again? Or a genuine desire not to "self-theorize" his own approach (which, it should be pointed out, has since become the norm)?
He gives the answer, in part, in a discussion with Vince Aletti shortly before his death: 
"I am very suspicious of the analysis of artworks, because the explanations for certain things aren't the real reasons."


New York School

So let's look elsewhere, as beyond the form there is "street photography", and there is New York.

The city was (at the time Saul Leiter was photographing it) undergoing a fundamental renewal of street photography. 
Gilles Mora described this renewal as a "visual revolution" in the exhibition at de Montpellier's Pavillon Populaire, devoted to the New York School Show.

He picks up the term that photo historian Jane Livingston had coined in 1990. (1)(2)

A "New York School", qualified in hindsight, almost recently: if the various protagonists ever knew each other, they were more "classmates" by a certain convergence in techniques and vision than by any stated collective views. 

It would be wrong to approach this creative ferment via technique, in particular the advent of new cameras, embodied by the Leica. These cameras were lighter than the Graflex Speed Graphic and other models still in vogue in the 1930s. 
There was also the development by Kodak of more sensitive films, including colour.

Technique played its part in the renewal, but it's at the margin that it supported the aesthetic evolution initiated elsewhere.
Low-angle shots did indeed become easier, as did pictures shot on the sly in low light. But the change of eye, of appreciation, has its roots elsewhere.

For the early 1930s marked another turning point. Saul Leiter wasn't yet a photographer, but events that preceded his career would profoundly change the situation.

In 1929 the Wall Street Crash signalled the end of an era. In its wake, the Great Depression sparked an unprecedented wave of poverty.

Photographers could no longer romanticize the modern industrial world with its beautiful plumes of smoke.
Elegant though Camera Work's productions and Stieglitz's lavish heliogravures of "The City of Ambitions" were, the modern city now had a harder look that needed to be reflected.
It's true that there were, already, before the crisis, works that we could call "social" by Jacob Riis, by Thomas Annan, then later by the young Lewis Hine and Paul Strand.
However, we were still in a very calm, steady aesthetic; poverty in the streets was real but picturesque, and relegated to the "poor neighbourhoods" that photographers would document as anthropologists. 

The Great Depression spread destitution everywhere, and for many American photographers of the 1930s there was a humanist awareness, and even political engagement. 
We developed "the taste of others" and took as a subject the "little people" in their ordinary lives.

Some photographers banded together under the Photo League banner, a socially active association that would die out in the early 1950s, accused by the FBI of being a communist association.

You don't want your work to stem from art; you want it to start with life, which is on the streets right now.
Walker Evans (3)

The names mentioned here will inevitably make a very incomplete list of American (or Austrian, Swiss, other) photographers photographing the street in New York.

There was Berenice Abbott, of course, and her Changing New York project. There was Walker Evans and his "documentary style". (In the USA, documentary reportage is in itself a humanist choice, very different from what is called humanist photography in Europe.)
Following them, a great many names continued to write the pages of New York street photography, each differently. 
With Lisette Model, Ben Shahn, Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand, Diane Arbus, William Klein, Gordon Parks, Roy DeCarava, Robert Frank, Saul Leiter... the pulse of New York City expressed itself in a formal freedom, a liberating instantaneity. 

So many games with so many reflections, so many shadows cast, camera glances that breathed life into the street, activating the ballet of the little people on the big city stage.

The music, too, beat a new rhythm; in every club the bebop throbbed.
In 1948, around the time Saul arrived in New York, suitcase in hand, Miles Davis and Gil Evans were busy engineering the birth of the Cool. 
Saul Leiter would photograph Davis some years later, but he devoted these first years to this New York street.

He would, in his own way, synthesize all the advances of the age; indulge his daring ideas in public, by snapping anonymous characters in the street, both now accepted. 
And wherever possible, he would choose the colour.
All this modernity was quietly subsumed into his hushed, refined –colourful– poetic world. 

Saul Leiter would thus continue to photograph his neighbourhood for at least twenty years.


The many lives of Saul Leiter

But what prevented the photographer from making his street photography more widely known? 
Well, for starters... his illustration photography and his commercial commitments!

Surprisingly it was Robert Frank, photographer-critic of Les Américains, who would introduce Saul Leiter to Alexey Brodovitch, artistic director at Harper’s Bazaar.
But Saul Leiter's first "commercial" commitment was to Henry Wolf for Esquire magazine.
Here, some light and shade is needed to correctly capture this moderate man, himself so nuanced in his perception of the world. 
Because in this fashion work that we might, with a hint of condescension, deem "commercial", he always invested a share of creation in perfect harmony with himself. 
Though stylistically his commissioned photos are less street photography and more portraiture, more female bodies, they are, nonetheless, an extension of his research and his eye. 
They brought him personal recognition (and paid his bills) for twenty years.

Throughout his life, he also continued to draw, paint, and fill sketchbooks.
His references were Bonnard and Vuillard, whom he admired, as Agnès Sire recalled during the Leiter exhibition at the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation. (4)

But there is another reason for his failure to "conquer the world" by pushing his work: he has always been wary of people who are too sure of themselves, too sure of what they're doing.
He would also readily admit that he was too aware of art history to push his own work forward.

But above all, - and this is without doubt the most beautiful "Lesson in Life" by Saul Leiter - though he was far from being an artist with an overactive ego, he took care to leave room in his life for others, friends... and a wife. 

"There are people who (…) sacrifice everything for success. I didn't feel that way. I attached more importance to the idea that there might be someone who might love me and whom I might love," he confided to Vince Aletti, modestly employing a hypothetical conditional. (5)

There was nothing hypothetical, though, about Soames Bantry; she shared the photographer's life for forty years.
And Saul Leiter would have so loved to share his artistic recognition with his partner, also a painter.

Finally he did; in 2012, at his last retrospective in Hamburg, ten years after the passing of his muse. The photographer reserved a room of his exhibition to pay tribute to Soames Bantry.

Part of the exhibition is soberly entitled "For Soames with Love, Saul".


Emmanuel Bacquet, April 2021
Translated from French by Mark Goodwin




2/ The New York School: Photographs 1936 - 1963, Jane Livingstone, Stewart, Tabori and Chang - Eastman Kodak, 1992

3/ Walker Evans, Le Secret de la photographie. Entretien avec Leslie Katz, Éditions du Centre Pompidou, 2017, p. 35.

4/ Saul Leiter, catalogue d’exposition, Agnès Sire, Steidl Verlag, 2008

5/ Saul Leiter: In conversation with Vince Aletti, May 22 2013, School of Visual Arts NYC

6/ Saul Leiter, Retrospektiv, Kehrer Verlag, 2012