Leitmotif: The Alchemy of Saul Leiter’s Colour Photography
– Brett Rogers
“Colour tends to corrupt photography – and absolute colour corrupts it absolutely... there are four simple words which must be whispered, ‘colour photography is vulgar'". – Walker Evans, 1969
Twenty years before the now legendary exhibition New Colour Photography at MoMA, New York – which brought to international prominence a generation of young American colourists including William Eggleston, Stephen Shore and Joel Meyerowitz – the New York photographer Saul Leiter had already begun experimenting with colour in radical ways. By embracing bold hues and tones in his compositions, and by treating colour in both a metaphorical and painterly manner, he transformed ordinary urban experience into visual poetry. His was a form of alchemy that rebutted the post-war dismissal of colour in photography made by figures such as Walker Evans.
Self-taught as a painter, Leiter initially began working in black and white after moving to New York from Philadelphia in the late 1940s. He quickly discovered the impact of colour on his photographs and his passion for experimenting with it over the next sixty years rarely ceased. For practical reasons, he generally printed in black and white (it being a less expensive process), keeping his colour slides tucked away in boxes. He often used expired colour film stock – again due to its low cost – but was delighted by the unusual shifts of colour that resulted.
Whilst there were pioneering colourists before Leiter, it was his background as a painter combined with his deep appreciation and knowledge of art history, that distinguished his approach. He had an instinctive feel for colour and form. For him, colour was the picture.
Take nearly any example from his early 1960s work and his painter’s eye for spatial ambiguity and passion for creating a lush but carefully calibrated colour palette, is already evident. The intensity and power of his compositions is drawn from a peculiar blend of opacity and transparency, mystery and revelation, speaking forcefully of human experience in the modern urban environment. The influence of painters such as Rothko, Hopper, Picasso, Gris and Delaunay is more visible in Leiter’s work than the pictorial strategies employed by his contemporaries within the world of photography.
An iconoclast committed to pursuing his own independent vision rather than following any particular trend, many of Leiter’s colour images focus on the lone figure. Usually photographed from a distance, occasionally face-on, but more often from the back or side, his subjects are superimposed against the busy urban environment: reflected in mirrors, framed by shop windows, entangled in road signs or commercial advertisements. In Leiter’s universe, such lone figures retain a secretive quality, negotiating their way through the urban maze, rather than simply being the starting point for a linear pictorial narrative. Interestingly, one of his favourite subjects was Halloween, as he was intrigued by people who liked to disguise their real identity. Using colour allowed him to make some of the otherwise hidden elements – especially his signature framing devices such as curtains, windows, doors and mirrors – more visible and explicit as visual ‘spyholes’.
Although now considered part of the New York School of celebrated ‘street’ photographers such as Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, Lisette Model and William Klein, who came to prominence during the 1950s and 60s, Leiter was much less interested in nailing “the decisive moment”. He didn’t perceive himself solely as a street photographer, preferring to mix a range of genres: still life, portraiture, fashion and architectural photography to create his own more nuanced images.
When we do not know why the photographer has taken the picture nor why we are looking at it, but all of a sudden we discover something that we start then seeing... I like this confusion.
What united his approach to image-making, whether in his photographs or his painting – which he continued in parallel with his photography right up until the end of his life in 2013 – was the exploration of the nature of perception itself. The fluid transition between the figurative and the abstract, illusion and reality. His visual references were Mondrian, De Stijl and Rothko rather than Robert Frank or Henri Cartier-Bresson (though he admired these photographers and was friends with them both).
Leiter seldom went further afield than the East Village vicinity of New York where he lived in the same apartment for nearly fifty years.
I take photos in my immediate neighbourhood. I think mysterious things happen in familiar places. We don’t need to run to the other end of the world.
In labelling him “the promenade” his critics caught his relaxed but utterly attentive approach to the incidental, but did not encapsulate the magnitude of his achievement. Rather than being a casual bystander, Leiter’s approach more closely parallels that of Charles Baudelaire’s flaneur – a poetic figure keenly aware of the bustle of modern life; amateur detective and urban investigator attuned to the signs of alienation and the impact of capitalism on the city. Through his work Leiter aims to transcend quotidian experience by revealing the mystery and poetry hidden – literally and metaphorically – behind appearances.