Saul Leiter: Retrospective, The Photographers’ Gallery, London

Pioneering American photographer and artist Saul Leiter (1923 – 2013, USA) has said of his work, “I like it when one is not certain what one sees. When we do not know why the photographer has taken a picture and when we do not know why we are looking at it, all of a sudden we discover something that we start seeing. I like this confusion.”

In over 100 photographs, sketchbooks and ephemera, this exhibition explores the motivation behind Leiter’s work and is both the artist’s first retrospective and first major show in a British public gallery. Born in 1923 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to an Orthodox Jewish family and expected to become a rabbi and scholar, Leiter rebelled and instead spent his youth immersed in art history readings and painting. At just 23 the artist decided to leave his studies and move to New York to embark upon a creative career.

Here Leiter met the American artist Richard Pousette-Dart, who introduced him to photography. Taking fashion photographs with an essence of elegance and humour, Leiter soon became a leading figure in his field. His work expanded into street life, portraiture, still life, fashion and architectural photography to provide a rounded view of the history of New York – specifically his immediate neighbourhood in which he lived for almost 60 years.

Despite his innovative work, Leiter received much criticism for his early use of colour and a free style – often using a lack of clarity, intentional blurs, radical abstraction at times and a certain flatness. Today however, he is seen as having preceded the ‘New Colour Photography’ of William Eggleston and Stephen Shore, working between painting and photography to create images that  stand between the abstract and the figurative; in fact, the artist is so broadly influential that he has been cited as the main inspiration behind Todd Haynes’ new film Carol.

Saul Leiter: Retrospective, until 3 April, The Photographers’ Gallery, 16-18 Ramillies St, London, W1F 7LW.

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1. Saul Leiter, Taxi, c 1957 © Saul Leiter Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York.