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The Photographers' Gallery, London, January 2016. Photo © Graham Harrison.

The Photographers' Gallery prepares to open five exhibitions including Saul Leiter: Retrospective, London, January 2016. All photos & text © Graham Harrison.

A Pocket Full of Kodachromes

The opening of the first major UK show of the American artist and modest pioneer of colour photography, Saul Leiter, prompts Graham Harrison to catch the early morning bus to London.

“One must always mistrust fashion, because it is, as often as not, arbitrary; and the assumption that one can become informed of, and participate in, the intellectual temper of our time through reliance on any breathlessly composed list of fashionable far-outs is funny and sad – and, what is much worse, terribly conformist.” Edward Albee, Harpers Bazaar, August 1962.

There’s a story about Saul Leiter turning up at the New York offices of the glitzy fashion magazine Harper’s Bazaar looking like an unmade bed and pulling Kodachromes from his pockets “of such dazzling quality” that the magazine’s art director commissioned him on the spot. There’s another story that the art director, Henry Wolf, had already used Leiter at Esquire before he moved to Bazaar in 1958 to fill the shoes of the great Alexy Brodovitch. [1]

Both stories may be true. What is certain is that on the faded pages of magazines beneath glass at Saul Leiter: Retrospective at the Photographers’ Gallery until 3 April, we glimpse some stylish fashion photographs by Leiter that stand well beside those taken by his contemporaries at Bazaar, Richard Avedon and Hiro.

Leiter also worked for Elle, British Vogue, Queen and the groundbreaking Nova. He then let his career as a fashion photographer quietly slip away.

In the early 1990s Leiter’s fashion photographs began to re-emerge. In 2006 came the revelation of his street photography with the publication of a book of images that he had shot on out-of-date 35mm colour stock between 1948 and 1960. Some of these can be seen at the London exhibition, the first retrospective of Leiter’s work in the UK.

Paintings and photographs hang side by side at the first major exhibition of Saul Leiter’s work in the UK. Leiter said, “Photographs are often treated as important moments, but really they are little fragments and souvenirs of an unfinished world”. Photo © Graham Harrison.

EARLY COLOR

Saul Leiter was born in Pittsburg in 1923. His father wanted him to follow in his footsteps and become a Talmudic scholar and rabbi, but Saul chose painting. In 1946 he escaped to New York where he would live in the same apartment block on the Lower East Side for over sixty years.

In a paradox, typical of Leiter’s life, writes Martin Harrison in Saul Leiter: Early Color, it was his friendship with an artist, the abstract expressionist Richard Pousette-Dart, that triggered Leiter’s recognition of the creative potential of photography.

In Leiter’s mind, separating painting from photography was simple. “Painting is about making something”, he explained to an audience in New York in 2013. “Photography is about finding things.”

ALWAYS THE YOUNG STRANGERS

Saul Leiter’s discovery of the potential of the medium in New York coincided with the ground-breaking Henri Cartier-Bresson retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in the Spring of 1947, and a friendship with W. Eugene Smith. [2]

In 1953 Leiter’s photographs were shown at MoMA in ‘Always the Young Strangers’. The press release for the event, a group show of young American photographers organised by Edward Steichen’s Department of Photography, mentions the “surrealist nature” of Leiter’s work. Take a look at the photographs titled Kutztown, Shirt, Two Ladies and Painted, all from 1948 and among his earliest colour work, and you will see hints of Eugène Atget the Surrealist’s favourite photographer. [3]

Any photographic orthodoxy, however, was quickly subsumed by Leiter’s painter’s vision. In Early Color Martin Harrison points out how Leiter’s interpretations of the urban environment suggest the intimate work of Bonnard and Vuillard, with whom he shared a love of the “asymmetry and radical cropping” of Japanese art. To which might be added flat planes and a preference for a vertical format and small, intimate prints.

Leiter’s most reproduced image is the horizontal Taxi (1957) which was shot using a telephoto lens, perhaps as long as 300mm. The shallow depth of field and flat planes a long lens produces renders out-of-focus objects a painterly single blob of colour, a technique Leiter used in his fashion work for Harper’s Bazaar.

Of his colour street photographs, Worker (1956), Limousine (1958), Don’t Walk (1952) and Pipes (c1960) published in Early Color may also be 300mm lens shots, as could be Window Dresser (c1956) in the 2008 Photo Poche/Photofile monograph on Leiter.

PRINT SALES

It has been said that Leiter was introduced to photography by Eugene Smith and that in 1946 Smith gave him some prints from his Spanish Village essay which Leiter sold to buy a Leica Ic and a copy of Alexy Brodovich’s influential photo book Ballet. The details may be correct but the year is wrong.

Although Ballet was published in 1945 and the Leica Ic would have been of interest to Leiter because it could be fitted with a viewfinder and rangefinder suitable for telephoto photography, the camera was not produced by Leitz until 1949 (and then only until 1951).

Smith had been seriously injured while replicating battle conditions for Parade magazine during WWII, suffering multiple head, chest and back injuries on the Island of Guam in May 1945. He did not return to full-time photography until 1947. His classic essay on the village of Deleitosa in western Spain was shot after he had recovered sufficiently from his injuries.

Spanish Village was published by LIFE on 9 April 1951. The Magnum web site dates all of Smith’s Spanish Village photographs to the same year. In which case, 1951 is by far the best guess for the year Leiter sold the prints and bought the Leica.

Saul Leiter ran a studio on Bleeker Street for ten years then one on Lower Fifth Avenue from 1963. The Harpers Bazaar assignments which had begun in 1958, ended in 1967 and over time the other magazine work dropped away. “I think he just didn’t have a taste for it any more – to be pushed around,” Margit Erb, Leiter’s gallery representative, told the New York Times recently. In 1981 he failed to pay his taxes and the studio closed.

REAPPEARANCE

The first person to recognise the significance of Saul Leiter’s photography was Martin Harrison who tracked the artist down to his apartment at 111 East 10th Street while researching for the book and V&A exhibition Appearances: Fashion Photography since 1945.

Saul had “really gone to ground, and was basically broke”, Harrison wrote in an email but when they met on 7 April 1989 he instantly became “a close friend, and a sort of guru”. Once Harrison had established that so many of Leiter’s non-fashion pictures had survived he came up with the idea of putting together a piece for the magazine of the short-lived Sunday Correspondent newspaper. [4]

In the article Saul Leiter Rediscovered published in the Correspondent magazine on 12 November 1989, Harrison, who is an authority on magazine culture and former Vogue photo assistant, took a pot shot at the “narrow and elitist view” taken by the conservative and largely American curators who seemed more intent on consolidating an established pantheon of great photographers than cultivating less well know but equally deserving practitioners like Saul Leiter.

John Gossage, via Facebook, has kindly pointed to Leiter being featured in issue four of an equally short-lived style magazine called Six, published by the Japanese fashion house Comme des Garçons between 1989 and 1991. In the Correspondent magazine article Martin Harrison mentioned that Leiter had shot a sixty-page assignment for the promotional magazine. The models for the shoot were Harrison’s own wife and son.

“I managed to get Saul some fashion jobs on which he was allowed total creative freedom,” said Harrison in his email. The fashion assignments bought Leiter more money than he’d seen in years.

In 1991 Martin Harrison’s book Appearances: Fashion Photography since 1945 was published and an exhibition of the same name was held at the V&A. Martin Harrison was freelance curator of the show. Richard Avedon proved a great support to Harrison during his research and they discussed Avedon’s fellow photographers including Leiter. Around 1990 Avedon called Harrison on behalf of the arts writer Jane Livingston for Saul’s contact details.

TRANSCENDING THE MEDIUM

According to the New Yorker “wider recognition” of Leiter’s work came after Avedon suggested Livingston include Leiter’s black and white work in her 1992 book The New York School: Photographs, 1936-1963. [5] [6]

There had been a series of three exhibitions that defined the New York School at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington back in 1985 but they did not feature Saul Leiter or, surprisingly, the more famous Weegee.

When Livingston’s book was published seven years later it included Leiter and Weegee at the expense of Roy Decarva and Ed Feingersh. [7] [8]

“Leiter is a rare artist,” Livingston enthused in The New York School. “One whose vision is so encompassing, so refined, so in touch with a certain lyrical undertone, that his best photographs occasionally seem literally to transcend the medium.”

Saul Leiter worked for the glossy fashion magazine Harper’s Bazaar from 1958 to 1967. Photo © Graham Harrison.

The same year The New York School hit the bookshops the Howard Greenburg Gallery in New York exhibited his black and white photographs and Leiter’s name began to appear in the press again, now in his own right rather than as a contributor. In 1998 The Times of London would describe Leiter as “a top fashion photographer of the 1960s”. [9]

The colour transparencies that Saul Leiter had shot on the streets of New York during the 1940s and 1950s remained unknown until the Howard Greenburg Gallery opened the twin shows Saul Leiter: Early Black and White and Saul Leiter: Early Color in December 2005. “I had to make several attempts, taking portfolios of Saul’s ‘street’ pictures to Greenburg, before the penny dropped,” said Harrison.

The book Saul Leiter: Early Color was Martin Harrison’s idea and is his picture selection except for two or three changes requested by Leiter. Harrison originally made a dummy for a considerably larger book but Leiter wanted the small format.

“Saul’s mantra was, ‘Couldn’t I just have a little book’”, said Harrison. “I came to see Saul was right on that point”. Published by Steidl in 2006, Early Color is now in its sixth edition.

International recognition followed two years later with a three month-long show at the Foundation Henri Cartier-Bresson in Paris.

And then came Tomas Leach’s delightful documentary In No Great Hurry – 13 Lessons in Life with Saul Leiter. Shot over a three-year period, the film was inspired by what Leach described as the “mesmerising and beautiful” images he first saw in Early Color. Holding up a copy as Leach’s camera rolls, Leiter asks, “If I didn’t do anything else but my little book, wouldn’t that be enough?”

In No Great Hurry proved to be his epitaph. Saul Leiter died in November 2013 just days after the film’s release. He was 89.

THE CUBE-SHAPED SUITCASE

Five months after Leiter’s death the New Yorker published the short article mentioned above. It talks of the cataloguing by Margot Erg and Anders Goldfarb, Leiter’s long-term assistant, of “two hundred and fifty thousand negatives and slides, and a host of priceless ephemera, including Leiter’s correspondence with Diane Arbus, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Irving Penn, whose praise for Early Color particularly pleased Leiter,” the weekly magazine reported.

Tantalisingly the article states, “They also found a cube-shaped suitcase from the nineteen-forties filled with undeveloped slide film”. [10]

In September 2015 the Saul Leiter Foundation was established under the direction of Margit Erb, who had known Leiter since she joined the Howard Greenburg Gallery in 1995. And Carol, a film by Todd Haynes starring Cate Blanchette, infused with Leiter-like colours and the style and sensibility of women photographers of his era, Ed Lachman, the film’s director of photography claimed, like Ruth Orkin, Esther Bubley, Helen Levitt and Vivian Maier, was released in November 2015. [11]

The Leiter retrospective was one of four shows that opened at the Photographers’ Gallery on 22 January. The previous morning Peter Greenwood and Stuart O’Brien of Highline Services cleaned the outside of the gallery windows which were boarded up inside like Tate Modern. So, without the distraction of one city we could contemplate Saul Leiter’s view of another.

The once neglected Kodachromes will be stored with great care and the fact that Leiter once took some to a magazine in his pocket will only add to their value because the glitzy gallery world, which his photography is now part of, thrives on tales of individualism and the rediscovery of forgotten genius.

• • •


Exhibition: Saul Leiter: Retrospective is on the fifth-floor of the Photographers’ Gallery, 16-18 Ramilies Street, London W1F 7LW until 3 April 2016.

Slideshow: Saul Leiter’s fashion and documentary photographs on the New York Times web site.

Lecture: In 2012 Saul Leiter gave a talk to accompany a retrospective of his work at the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam.

Prints: There are seven prints of Saul Leiter’s work in the prints and drawings collection at the Victoria and Albert museum, only one of which can be seen online.

Saul’s first camera: Leiter was given a Detrola by his mother when he was 12. The Detroit-based manufacturers, the Detrola Corporation, made radio and record-players and only produced cameras between 1939 and 1940. Most were made out of Bakelite and tinplate. The Detrola 400, however, was based on the Leica rangefinder camera.

Martin Harrison: The curator and art historian Martin Harrison (no relation) is editor of a five-volume catalogue raisonné of the work of painter Francis Bacon to be published on 28 April 2016.

Tom Ang: Thanks to Tom Ang, former Correspondent Magazine picture editor, for sending images of the Saul Leiter Rediscovered article by Martin Harrison. Tom’s latest book Photography: The Definitive Visual History is available on Amazon.


• • •


NOTES on A Pocket Full of Kodachromes

[1] The “Kodachrome in pockets” story is told by film director Robert Benton (Kramer vs. Kramer) who was Henry Wolf’s assistant at Harper’s Bazaar. Wolf left Bazaar in 1961, Leiter would continue working for the title for another six years. From ‘How Bazaar’ by Lydia Slater, Harper’s Bazaar (UK edition), March 2016.

[2] The MoMA exhibitions Colour Photography in 1950 and Abstraction in Photography the following year may have been of interest to Leiter but, it seems, he was always going to go his own way.

[3] A copy of the press release for the exhibition Always the Young Strangers can be seen in the Photographers’ Gallery retrospective. Dated 25 February 1953, the release states that the MoMA exhibition comprises of three to six prints by each of twenty-five young American photographers. Most of the works, both colour and black and white prints, had been acquired by Steichen’s Department of Photography during the previous three years. The show ran from 26 February to 1 April 1953

[4] The Sunday Correspondent, which was aimed at younger Guardian and Independent readers, lasted just fourteen months from 17 September 1989 until 25 November 1990. Its demise was sealed by the launch of the Independent on Sunday (IoS) in January 1990. The launch also began the slow decline of the daily Independent, as the cost of running two editorial teams proved too great a strain on limited financial resources. The IoS closed as a separate newspaper in 2013. The last print edition of the Independent will be published on 26 March 2016.

[5] “Wider recognition didn’t come until 1992, when Jane Livingston, the chief curator for the Corcoran Gallery of Art, followed Avedon’s recommendation to include Leiter in a book called The New York School: Photographs, 1936-1963”. ‘Saul Leiter in Black and White’ by Genevieve Fussell, the New Yorker, 3 April 2014.

[6] There are fourteen mostly full-page photos by Leiter plus a couple pages of text and a page-long biography in The New York School: Photographs, 1936-1963. Livingston concentrates more on the work of Sid Grossman and on Brodovich’s seminal book Ballet. With thanks to Gary Bowden of New Brunswick, Canada.

[7] The omissions and inclusions of the Corcoran Gallery exhibition and Livingston book are mentioned in the entry New York School (ii) on Oxford Art Online.

[8] Appearances: Fashion Photography since 1945 by Martin Harrison was published by Jonathan Cape Ltd. on 14 February 1991. Jane Livingston’s The New York School: Photographs, 1936-1963 was published by Stewart, Tabori & Chang Inc. on 17 December 1992.

[9] ‘Confessions of a Social Dyslexic’, by Magnus Linklater, The Times, Wednesday, 5 August 1998.

[10] On 21 January 2016 the New York Times reported that the unprocessed film was negative film. This seems unlikely.

[11] “Digital lacks a sense of depth in color separation. In film, there’s these three layers, R,G,B. It’s almost like an etching where the light is eating into the negative when it’s developed, and even though it is microscopic, it gives a depth to the image that I always feel is lacking digitally.” Ed Lachman, Director of Photography on the film Carol, discusses what he and director Todd Haynes were aiming for, on Vantage.

A Pocket Full of Kodachromes
All photos and text © 2016 Graham Harrison

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