Self-portrait with [his sister and first model] Debora, 1940s.Photo: © 2023 Saul Leiter Foundation
One evening in 1946, Saul Leiter took a train from his native Pittsburgh to New York. At the age of 22, he left behind his family and friends, as well as the life mapped out for him by his father, an esteemed Orthodox rabbi, who had expected his son to follow in his footsteps. “I turned away from everything he believed in and cared about,” Leiter would later say, and that decision created a rift between them that could never be healed.
That youthful act of self-determination led to a long-term estrangement from his family, although his mother kept in secret contact with him. It also set Leiter on an extraordinary creative journey that would culminate some sixty years later in his belated canonization as one of the most gifted and mysterious photographers of the second half of the 20th century.
“Saul lost everything when he moved to New York,” says Anne Morin, curator of Saul Leiter: An Unfinished World, a major retrospective of his work soon to be shown at the MK Gallery in Milton Keynes. “But even though he rejected his upbringing, it shaped him as an artist. From the moment he left Pittsburgh, he was someone who did not fit into any community, artistic or otherwise. He lived like a monk in his New York apartment and led an almost clandestine creative life, completely uninterested in fame or even recognition.”
In a recently published book Saul Leiter: The Centennial Retrospective, Leiter summarizes his vision during his long years of obscurity. “I wasn’t ambitious or driven,” he says matter-of-factly. “I don’t admire success the way some people do. I was fortunate that I could not achieve my ambition of being successful.”
Like Vivian Maier, the nanny whose secret archive was discovered a few years after her death in 2009, Leiter shot on the streets of Manhattan. But while she wandered far and wide, he stayed close to home, never venturing beyond a few blocks around his East 10th Street apartment. Unlike William Klein’s hectic, neon-lit city, or Berenice Abbott’s towering modernist metropolis, Saul Leiter’s New York is a closely observed world of gestures and details: luminous, otherworldly, and strangely tranquil. Streets and buildings are bathed in soft light and warm colors, where his use of reflections, blur and shadow approaches the abstract or dreamlike. People are partially seen in passing cars, or photographed through vertical spaces between buildings or billboards. Seen through smeared or fogged windows, they sometimes appear to be ghostly silhouettes.
He captured the city and its inhabitants in all seasons, against brightly colored storefronts in the summer sun, and shrouded in snow or partially obscured by rain in the harsh New York winter. Often his subjects are captured in moments of quiet reverie, amid, but apart from, the hustle and bustle of the city.
“As a photographer, he was never seduced by the idea of New York as the mythical city that never stops,” says Morin. “He was always more attuned to the small than to the large, to the silence rather than the noise. For him, the city revealed itself in the small details of everyday life, but he also wanted to somehow look through the skin of surface reality to see something different, something ephemeral but full of meaning.
Leiter’s clandestine creative journey began in 1938, at the age of 15, when he began painting and sketching in his spare time between school studies. The following year his mother gave him a Detrola camera, which sparked his interest in the medium for which he is now best known, but he continued to paint throughout his life. His extensive archive contains more than 4,000 abstract pieces and geometric landscapes, mainly watercolors. The Milton Keynes gallery will feature the full range of his work: both black and white and color images, fashion photographs, languorously erotic portraits of his long-time partner, Soames Bantry, a former model, and her beautiful friends, as well as his paintings and painted over photographs.
“I deliberately mixed everything together rather than sorting the work into different categories,” says Morin. “Leiter did not set out to create a body of work, but instead he produced all these fragments that continually grew and came together to form this vast territory – his unfinished world.”
Arriving in New York as a young man, Leiter slept on park benches before finding a cheap apartment on Perry Street in Greenwich Village. He befriended the abstract expressionist painter Richard Pousette-Dart, who, along with the photographer Eugene Smith, became a formative influence. During this time, Leiter’s aversion to success was already evident: in the 1950s he turned down an offer for an exhibition from an important art dealer, Betty Parsons, whose support was highly sought after by other emerging artists. Later in life he was fond of recounting how he was admonished for the smallness of his paintings by the artist Franz Kline, who told him, “If you only worked big, you would be one of the boys.”
Leiter’s temperament was such that he would never become one of the boys, but in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s he reluctantly became a fashion photographer to survive and to finance his more personal work. The images he made for Harper’s Bazaar and later for British magazines such as Nova And Man over city are fascinating in their quiet subversion, but often seem limited and altogether less atmospheric than his personal work. An exception to this is a striking image Nova, in which he posed Bantry next to a small boy on a piece of urban wasteland as they both intently read comics against a backdrop of abandoned houses. It is deliberately unglamorous and somber, foreshadowing the casual, understated approach of a generation of young, idiosyncratic photographers who came of age in the 1980s.
In equally mysterious Bantry, Leiter found a kindred spirit – someone who shared his lack of interest in fame and was also an avid painter. They met in 1958, when she had just arrived in New York looking for work as a model. For most of their time together, they lived in the same building but in separate apartments, with the walls of his workspace covered in her oil paintings of flowers and people. “They were two independent souls who didn’t want to fit in,” says Morin. “They wanted to be creatively free and embrace life on their own terms. And they succeeded.” When Bantry died in 2002, they lived together in her apartment, where Leiter remained, surrounded by her work, until his death in 2013, at the age of 89.
It was in the streets surrounding their building that he took the color photographs for which he is now remembered. Their late discovery challenged the accepted history of color photography in America, as Leiter began experimenting with the tonal possibilities of color twenty years before William Eggleston and Stephen Shore, whose embrace of it caused so much controversy among critics in the early 1970s. and traditionalists.
In the Milton Keynes show, Morin has chosen to give equal attention to his black and white photographs, which, she says, have “all but disappeared in the myth of Saul Leiter”.
That myth has as much to do with the idiosyncratic nature of his clandestine creative life as it does with the quiet audacity of his color photography. Although his work had appeared in various group exhibitions throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Leiter did not have a solo exhibition until 1993, when the Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York showed some of his black-and-white photographs.
But it wasn’t until ten years later, when the same gallery organized an exhibition titled Saul Leiter: Early Color, that his photographs really began to attract attention. A book of the same name, his first monograph, was published the following year, when he was 72. It was greeted as revelatory by a photography world surprised by its existence. “I used to be unknown and that was very soothing and enjoyable,” he told writer Adam Harrison Levy in 2009. “Now I have become famous and people want to interview me.”
In Levy’s essay for Saul Leiter: The Centennial Retrospectivehe sees a connection between Leiter’s Orthodox Jewish upbringing – he once described himself as having a “rabbinic spirit” – and his quietly investigative approach to photography.
“[Leiter] retained the last vestiges of his Talmudic education, where research and the interpretation of texts were taught and promoted. He had taken that way of interrogating the world, but transposed it to the visual world: he saw the streets of New York and its inhabitants with the narrative insight of a Talmudic scholar. The streets were his text.”
Despite all the attention he received in the last decade of his life, Leiter remains an enigma, a remarkably self-effacing artist who walked to his own rhythm and searched every day for what Morin calls ‘the sharp moment’, in the same few streets, for almost 60 years.
“I strove to be insignificant,” he said of his working life as a photographer of the everyday sublime. In any case, he was not successful in this.
• Saul Leiter: An Unfinished World is at MK Gallery, Milton Keynes, February 17 – June 2
• Saul Leiter: The Centennial Retrospective by Margit Erb and Michael Parillo is published by Thames & Hudson (£60). In support of the Guardian And Observer Order your copy at Guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply