Beauty in the Mundane

Beauty in the Mundane

“Perfection is not something I admire. A touch of confusion is a desirable ingredient,” said pioneer of street photography, Saul Leiter (1923-2013) who captured the flaws and nuances of the city life in mid-20th century New York. Rain splashed taxi cabs, obscured views through glass facades and close up shots of inhabitants contribute to a sense of composition, humour and grace. Leiter moved to the metropolis at the age of 22 to pursue a career in painting. Instead, however, he found his calling in photography. The artist turned to recording the beauty of the most ordinary places through the camera lens, fusing aspects of architectural, documentary and fashion photos. During the 1950-1960s, much of his evocative colour images were overlooked until their widespread popularity and critical acclaim in the 1970s.

To mark the centennial of Leiter’s birth, a selection of his well-known and rarely seen works are brought together in a comprehensive compendium to reveal the complete artist for the first time. The Centennial Retrospective, published by Thames & Hudson, is an extensive summary of a diverse yet interconnected oeuvre. The publication begins with a selection of monochrome family pictures, including some of the first snapshots Leiter took of his sister, Deborah. As Leiter’s first model, Debora was captured repeatedly between 1943 and 1945. In one image, Leiter takes a photograph of her in a wooden boat. Wistfully, she gazes off into the horizon. This subtlety is traceable in later works, emerging in famous exhibitions such as Early Color at Howard Greenberg Gallery in 2005. Figures appear unaware of the camera, clutching steaming coffee mugs in diners or behind panes of condensed glass, trudging through the snow.

Leiter’s experimental street shoots reveal a unique depiction of the Manhattan cityscape. Lack of clarity, intentional blur and radical abstraction are recurring characteristics of a six decade long practice. Fragments of life are pieced together from the everyday in a maelstrom of cradled umbrellas and luminous streets, wet with rainfall. As Max Kozloff writes in the Introduction to the book, “The incidents Leiter catches with the lens are generic and recessive, almost lost in his accent on the most specific phenomena of light, contrast, interval, and tone. Figures are treated as shapes before they are recognised as peddlers or newspapers traders. It is a world of echoes and ricochets, observed from angles that emphasize the flatness of miscellaneous presences in the urban space.” The effect is musical – in a synthesis of elements.

Alongside informative essays which analyse the featured works, the book includes projects from a period when Leiter collaborated with Harpers Bazaar. These commercial images erase stylistic distinctions between commissioned and artistic practices and investigate the effects of different focal lengths through unusual visual harmony. Elsewhere, readers are presented with an overview of Leiter’s vivid and sharp brushstroke paintings influenced by abstract expressionist canvases, as well as Japanese monotype prints. Finally, the edition displays an array of black and white nudes of models and tinted photographs of similar subjects which were unseen until the artists’ passing in 2013. Readers are confronted with Leiter’s ability to amalgamate styles as he shuffles the attributes of multiple genres at once. The resulting book provides an intimate and introspective conclusion. It highlights the beauty in stillness. Leiter’s painterly pictures are deeply affecting as they reach out and powerfully remind us of hidden worlds that exist in the mundane.

An exhibition at Howard Greenberg Gallery coincides with the publication of the book.  Saul Leiter: Centennial features more than 40 paintings and photographs. On view until 10 February.

The Centennial Retrospective: Saul Leiter | Thames & Hudson

Words: Fruzsina Vida

1. Photographs by Saul Leiter © Saul Leiter Foundation, 2023. Mailmen, c. 1952.

2. Photographs by Saul Leiter © Saul Leiter Foundation, 2023. Snow, 1970.

3. Photographs by Saul Leiter © Saul Leiter Foundation, 2023. Through boards, c. 1957.

4. Photographs by Saul Leiter © Saul Leiter Foundation, 2023. Through boards, c. 1957. Untitled, undated.