In search of Beauty – Saul Leiter

by Diana Di Nuzzo, 5 July 2018

A great example of what being a real artist really is: the amazing story of Saul Leiter. His work is on view at Fotocolectania in Barcelona. His experience should remind everybody that being an artist is a matter of creating a body of work, and not finding fame and immediate success. He was a painter and a photographer who has found recognition very late in his life. To celebrate his memory and his art is essential in order to understand a chunk of American History of Photography.

Being ignored is a great privilege. That is how I think I learned to see what others do not see and to react to situations differently. I simply looked at the world, not really prepared for anything.” S.L.130 stunning shots taken by the outstanding american photographer Saul Leiter, are now on view at the Fotocolectania Foundation in Barcelona. His work is recognized worldwide, even if he has met fame late in his career, facing it almost with indifference.

Disappointing his father (who wanted him to be a Rabi) the young Saul, at 23 years old, left Pittsburgh to go to New York, in order to become an artist. Here he became friend with the abstract expressionist painter Richard Pousette-Dart and with W.Eugene Smith, who encouraged him to take on photography. Saul started to shoot camera all around the Village with a Leica, a light camera that was easy to carry around the city and that revolutionized street photography in general.

Being ignored is a great privilege. That is how I think I learned to see what others do not see and to react to situations differently

At this time the use of color film was uncommon, but not in fashion photography. In 1951, Leiter was already in Life Magazine, just 5 years after taking up photography. Then it was the time of Harper’s Bazar (when Henry Wolf was the art director), Esquire, Elle, Show, Vogue Britain, Queen and Nova.  

In 1953 some black and white photos of his are exhibited in a show at Moma and then in a museum in Tokyo, while his first solo show happened at the Tanager gallery in NY. In 1963 he opens a studio on 5th Avenue (that he will have to close in 1981 because of lack of money, keeping working from home instead).

Saul was not a “careerist”, he was not interested in fame. He knew he had talent, and after turning his back to the fashion photography work, he also turned his back to financial stability. Ilford Paper Company helped him to print out his work in 1993, and in the same year he started to show with the Howard Greenberg Gallery, the same gallery that in 1997 will give him his first show with photos in color.

Just in 2006 his first monographic book was published: “Early Color” that was welcomed internationally with great success. Later on his work will be showed also at the Fundacion Henri Cartier Bresson (2008). 

Saul has been living on 10th street with his partner of his whole life, and he has always kept taking photos and painting, not matter what were his economical conditions.

There is also a movie you can check out called “Saul Leiter: in no great hurry” by Tomas Leach (2009).

In 2013 he passed away peacefully in his home, and a Foundation with his name keeps alive now his legacy with shows, books and educational projects.

He has been shooting the streets of New York during six decades, and his perspective on the world has become a signature of his take on life. The characters of his shots are often out of focus, or just partially shown, while the abstract use of color is another typical trait of his style. He liked to photograph urban landscapes where the brims of things or the drops of rain could be important narrative figures of his peculiar compositions.

The poetry and the intensity coming out of his lenses applied to the world are conveyed by his unconventional use of shapes and the painterly use of colors. There is not a central perspective on things, and the spacial dynamics are compressed in scenes where the strong contrasts are in charge of creating the composition.

The show held now in Barcelona is for sure a must see.

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