It was a good year for Saul Leiter, who died Tuesday at the age 89. There’s a new documentary about his life and work, an exhibition of his photographs and paintings in London and earlier this year, he was presented with a lifetime achievement award at the ArtHamptons International Fine Art Fair.
Over the course of Tomas Leach’s documentary, “In No Great Hurry: 13 Lessons in Life with Saul Leiter,” Leiter reflects on his life and work and delivers some sharp observations — a few home truths punctuated with a wry sense of humor. The action takes place mostly in Leiter’s large but run-down old apartment on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where he has lived and worked for over 50 years.
The son of a prominent rabbi and Talmud scholar, Leiter was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps. But he forsook the fold in favor of art and culture. “I don’t want to be a professional Jew for the rest of my life,” Leiter told his father, who cried with shame when his son first started to exhibit.
For the majority of his life, Leiter was a peripheral figure who maintained a certain anonymity and distance from the art world that enabled him to quietly pursue his work in the solitary fashion he appears to have preferred.
“I’m a person who likes to postpone things. I see no reason for being in a rush,” he said in the documentary.
In the 1950s his photographs were exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, and his paintings were shown alongside the work of Willem de Kooning. In the 1950s and ’60s he carved out a niche as a fashion photographer, but he also ignored opportunities that presented themselves; for example, he chose not to show his photographs in Edward Steichen’s survey of international photography at MoMA in 1955.
As one of the first photographers to experiment with color in the 1940s, he simply could not afford, at times, the expense of processing and transforming his images from slides to photographs. For years many of his images remained in slide form, stored away in boxes, unseen by the general public.
In the 1990s Leiter began developing some of these images. Several exhibitions and the publication of a monograph and a 2008 book collection titled “Early Color” brought his work back into the public eye.
Leiter’s street photography has been associated with the abstract expressionist movement, although his work also has an affinity with modernist aesthetics and one of his professed loves, impressionism. What made Leiter’s work stand apart from that of his contemporaries, such as Walker Evans and Diane Arbus, was his approach and subject matter. Leiter shot scenes of the city and its denizens, often from unusual angles and vantage points. Many of his photographs experimented with color, and they were often oblique, creating abstracted compositions.
In his paintings, his use of color is vibrant. The tones in his photography are more muted, often intentionally obscured. Leiter used Kodachrome, which contributed to the rich and deep coloring of his images. Occasionally, he would buy out-of-date film that, when developed, produced unpredictable color shifts.
Very little is straightforward in Leiter’s photography. His color work rarely establishes intimacy with his subjects. His work is not up close and personal; the viewer is kept at a distance. The cumulative effect is of a distinctly expressive vision of the city, a vision that is not wide and expansive, but indirect and fragmented. The viewer is almost aware of the photographer as a peripheral figure hovering just outside the frame.
As well as the abstracted views, there are many moments of a more traditional kind of beauty: evocative depictions of New Yorkers braving the elements in snow-filled and rain-sodden streets, images reminiscent of impressionist paintings.
“I have nothing against a view of life that considers it worthwhile to pursue certain notions of beauty. I see nothing wrong with that,” Leiter states in Leach’s documentary.
Leiter’s paintings have also received critical praise, but his photographs will probably be his legacy. He is now recognized as a pioneer of color photography, though he seems bemused about his belated recognition.
“Am I a heroic figure straddling across the mountains of photography? I don’t think so,” he asks with a chuckle. Referring to his book “Early Color,” he says, “If I didn’t do anything more then my little book, wouldn’t that have been enough?”
Graham Lawson is a freelance journalist based in Tel Aviv.