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If the joy of going to an exhibition is in seeing much-loved artworks in close proximity, it’s also in discovery – in arriving with little idea of what’s ahead and realising just what you’ve been missing. A new retrospective of the photography of Saul Leiter falls very much into the latter category.

I knew almost nothing about Leiter before I visited the Photographers’ Gallery, other than that he was American and was famed for picturing Manhattan’s street life. In fact, he was a prime mover in establishing colour photography as a respected art form, after years of it being seen as the lesser tool of the advertising industry.

Saul Leiter Snow, 1960 © Saul Leiter Courtesy: Saul Leiter, Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York. Aus der Ausstellung SAUL LEITER - RETROSPEKTIVE im Haus der Photographie in den Deichtorhallen, 3.2.2012 - 15.4.2012.
‘Snow’ Saul Leiter (1960)

Successful, although far from a household name in his career, he also worked for various glossy magazines as fashion photographer in the 1960s and 1970s, most notably Harper’s Bazaar, for which he shot the predictable array of models in diamonds, modish hats and chic tailoring.

But Leiter, who died three years ago when he was 90, was not primarily a photographer of the glamorous, great or good. Arriving in New York as the drab war years gave way to the affluent, image-conscious 1950s, he spent the subsequent decades drawing out the magnificence in the mundane; the crowd gathered to gawk at an accident, the old men furiously focused on their chess game, a weathered set of street signs on a dreary day.

Saul Leiter Postmen, 1952 © Saul Leiter Courtesy: Saul Leiter, Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York. Aus der Ausstellung SAUL LEITER - RETROSPEKTIVE im Haus der Photographie in den Deichtorhallen, 3.2.2012 - 15.4.2012.
‘Postmen’ Saul Leiter (1952)

Yes, like many of his contemporaries, he helped bring to life the Manhattan of the Mad Men era before this was a thing; shooting the New York of men on the make, of taxis nestled between imposing skyscrapers, of workers going about their day in front of wall-to-wall advertising for Coke and Pepsi. A city of industry and opportunity, permanently first with the trends and always on the cusp of change.

But what comes across from this display is that his photographs recorded urban life in general, not any specific moment in time. A master of composition who was close to a number of abstract expressionist artists, not to mention a talented painter himself, his photographs show New York in the shadows, whitewashed by snow, or bleary and half-concealed by unrelenting rain. They show New York in vivid colour, often bright and bleak at the same time. Many of his shots are in soft focus; they convey the idea of the subject rather than the subject per se.

Saul Leiter: Taxi, ca. 1957.
‘Taxi’ Saul Leiter (circa 1957)

He was interested in people, as you’d expect from a street photographer, but in people who could be anyone, rushing between streets that could be anywhere. His most compelling photographs are those that show men and women caught unawares, going about the minutiae of daily life and carrying with them any number of secrets. In the 1955 photograph ‘Red Umbrella’, you see Leiter’s subject through a car window, and then behind her hazy figures making their way through the wintry city. Nothing is revealed about her or her location, bringing to the life the anonymity of a big city where a person is constantly seen, but very rarely known.

His photos of ‘the street’ focus on what is left out, rather than the scene in its entirety; figures concealed by umbrellas, cars, doorways. One of his prints shows a man seated in a plush train carriage; only his foot (and smart shoe) is allowed in shot. You can vaguely make out an industrialised cityscape behind him, but who is this traveller, and where is he going? In another, from 1950, a silhouetted figure on what appears to be crutches is viewed from a stairway above. Who is the man, and who is the witness? Leiter’s photographs let you make up your own mind.

05_ Press Image l Saul Leiter, Daughter of Milton Abery,1950er resized
‘Daughter of Milton Abery’ Saul Leiter (1950)

As the exhibition notes, Leiter had originally planned to become a rabbi, just like his father. Religion’s loss was, unquestionably, photography’s gain.

‘Saul Leiter: Retrospective’ is open until 3 April at the Photographers’ Gallery, 16-18 Ramillies Street, London.