Book Review – Saul Leiter: Retrospektive

Ulka Chauhan Book Reviews 2 Comments

Although nothing beats browsing through photobooks at bookshops, there is also something to be said about the experience of ordering them online and waiting in anticipation for the package to arrive.

One such photobook that I bought online during the long grey and rainy spell here in Switzerland was delivered today.  As I pore through the pages of this early adoptor of colour photography, I cannot help be taken by the use of mirrors, reflections, windows, fog and negative space in the abstract compositions that form his visual signature.

Taxi, 1957

The Retrospektive of Saul Leiter is a book that represents his body of work.  He is an artist that stood at the crossroads of art, abstraction, fashion and street.  This book includes his paintings, his early black and white images, his commercial fashion work and his pioneering colour photography. 

Leiter adopted colour at a time when many of his contemporaries regarded it as “low art,” fit only for advertising.

Red Umbrella, ca 1958
Left: Untitled, 1950s; Right: Snow, 1960

Wandering around his home district, the East Village in New York City, Leiter used the street as his stage photographing everything that caught his interest – the red of an umbrella, the green of a traffic light or the yellow of a passing taxi… he used colors and shapes as a focal point in his images.  He isolated human figures against snow or rain.  He was constantly alert to the typographical poetry of street signs and lettering stencilled on shop windows.

He is known to have purposefully shot with aged or environmentally damaged film which gives his photos a distinct tone and mood.  Apart from that, he also used a shallow depth of field to throw different parts of an image in and out of focus. While this brings attention to the subject of the photo, it was also a way in which he played with abstracting objects. 

Untitled, 1952
Harlem, 1960

What I like the most about the way he used abstraction is the anchoring point in each of his photos that grounds us to something that can be identified.  By withholding just the right amount of information in each of his images, he creates a compelling curiosity gap.  It is this delicate balance of the portrayal of an unreal world against something real that speaks to me the most.

Leiter was born in 1923 in Pittsburgh, the son of a renowned Jewish theological scholar. His family expected him to follow his father – to attend theology school and become a Rabbi. Leiter dutifully did so, but an interest in another kind of deity kept pulling at him. Leiter was fascinated by abstract art, and, at the age of 23, he dropped out of theology school, got the bus to New York, found a home in the Manhattan’s East Village and enrolled in art school.

Shortly after his arrival in New York City, he met the Abstract Expressionist painter Richard Pousette-Dart, who was experimenting with photography at the time.  Leiter’s friendship with Pousette-Dart, and soon after with photographer Eugene Smith, along with the photo exhibitions he saw in New York, particularly Henri Cartier-Bresson’s at the Museum of Modern Art in 1947, inspired him to take it up.

Left: Untitled, 1950s; Right: Lingerie Shop, 1952

As I look through Saul Leiter’s Retrospektive, I cannot help feel a deep sense of nostalgia for this city I once called home.  A city which holds a special place in my heart in a way that only someone who ever lived there would understand.

One of the powers of photography is that it connects us to our past – it reminds us of people, places, feelings, and stories.  Leiter’s portrait of downtown NY is so deeply moving, looking at it makes me reflect on my time there and reminisce about the happy memories and milestone moments. 

Reflection, 1958

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