Painting the town Saul Leiter’s mid-century New York photography is painterly and full of colour, finds Marie-Charlotte Pezé ‘If you put a knife to his throat, Saul Leiter would say he’s a painter, even though he’s more renowned for his photography work,’ says Bernadette van Woerkom, the exhibition curator who organised the retrospective of the New York artist’s work at the Joods Historisch Museum. Seven of his abstract expressionist paintings open the exhibit as a foretaste of what’s to come: the vast colourful planes of his brushwork, sometimes reminiscent of a softer Mark Rothko or Franz Kline, are found again in the composition of his colour photographs. ‘You recognise that it’s all coming from the same source of artistic inspiration,’ Van Woerkom says. Leiter’s interest in visual arts grew from a very young age. The son of Orthodox Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, Pittsburgh-born Leiter was expected to follow in the footsteps of his father, a Talmudic scholar of international reputation, and become a rabbi. Instead, he broke away from his strict religious upbringing and moved to New York at the end of the 1940s, creating a rift with his father – and with Judaism – that would never be mended. ‘When I look back on my life and how unprepared I was for the world, I’m astonished that I had the nerve to have the illusion that I could manage to survive. I don’t know what gave me the idea that there was any hope for me,’ the artist explains in a documentary about Leiter, directed by young British film-
His muted colours became an inspiration for many photographers and film-makers maker Tomas Leach, who spent many hours with the photographer in his studio. An exclusive 13-minute excerpt from the documentary (due for release in early 2012) is also part of the show. New York offered Leiter the opportunity to meet other artists, such as Richard Pousette-Dart, who was experimenting with painting over life-size photographs
Leiter’s Walk with Soames (left); Haircut, 1956 (top right); Sneeuw-Snow, New York 1960 (bottom right) – a mixed-medium technique that Leiter later employed in his nude photography. His early black and white street photography captured a melancholy that’s not only a reflection of post-WWII tension and insecurity, but also of his loneliness as a young man with little life experience in a big city. ‘These pictures, the compositions and devices, are very much connected to other Jewish photographers of that era, such as [Leon] Levinstein, William Klein, Diane Arbus,’ says Van Woerkom. That’s how Leiter came to be considered one of these artists from the New York School of photography, ‘many of who were also from Jewish immigrant families, who felt like newcomers – outsiders – which gave them that special sensitivity’. What’s notable about his early photography is that the cheap cameras
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he used didn’t detract from the beauty and intensity of his work. He was too poor to afford good equipment until 1951, when American photojournalist W Eugene Smith gifted him prints from his ‘Spanish Village’ series, which Leiter sold to buy himself a Leica camera. Most of the 130 photos in the exhibit come from that 1948 to1960 period, during which Leiter discovered colour photography. At the time, colour wasn’t only considered a vulgar medium reserved for advertising and fashion, it was also expensive to process, so he bought a lot of expired film. The results were unexpected, but somehow compelling and they became his signature images. His muted colours became an inspiration for many photographers and filmmakers, too; director Sam Mendes said they were a major influence on the look of his 2008 drama ‘Revolutionary Road’.
There’s a sharp contrast between the wistfulness of Leiter’s black-and-white work and the harmony, the poetry of his colour photographs. ‘The two outlooks lived in him side by side,’ says Van Woerkom. ‘You can feel the grief, but also the joy.’ Rather than organise the exhibition chronologically, she says she worked ‘by intuition’, searching for stylistic similarities between images. The result is stunning. On light blue walls, framed by pale wood, the vibrancy of Leiter’s compositions takes on all their magnitude and humanity. ‘I like the idea that unimportant things can be a source of great beauty; I’m more interested in a window covered in raindrops than photographing a famous person,’ Leiter says in Leach’s film. ‘Everything is a photograph.’ His snippets of life caught through panes of wet glass or obstructed by vast colourful fields, sometimes focused on a detail rather than a face, tell long stories with understated yet overwhelming emotion. Says Van Woerkom, ‘he takes ordinary objects and transforms them into something very poetic that lifts your heart and your mind.’ Joods Historisch Museum until 4 March, 2012. See listings for details.