‘It’s just too much, don’t you think?’ asks Saul Leiter as he walks around his own exhibition, on view until April 15th at Hamburg’s Deichtorhallen. The video documenting Leiter’s reaction accompanies over 400 photographs and paintings that fill the soaring spaces of this re-purposed industrial complex, now a centre for contemporary art and photography. With room after room after room of images that riff on favoured themes and compositions, it’s a serious question. But it’s also part of Leiter’s characteristic modesty. After a lifetime in relative obscurity, his recent fame—following a series of shows at Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York, from which almost all the works come, and the Steidl publication Saul Leiter: Early Color—must be overwhelming, or at least a little bewildering.
Leiter was born in Pittsburgh in 1923, and came to New York on a midnight bus at the age of 23. The city offered a new start, removed from his Jewish orthodox upbringing, and, it would seem, a lifetime of visual inspiration. Largely self-taught, his first love was painting, and his affinity not only to the movements that defined the era, abstract expressionism and colour field painting, but also to Picasso, Mondrian and Vuillard is evident in both paintings and photographs. Though the paintings are interesting in relation to the photographs, the blocks of vivid colour and flattened, geometric compositions take on a different dynamism when cropped from New York streets.
Leiter’s photographs speak not only to the dominant aesthetic concerns of the time, but also, and with arresting elegance and agility, to the newfound capacity of colour photography to depict everyday life. For Leiter, these are often literally reflections, found in urban mirrors and windows, and punctuated by recurring motifs: hats, umbrellas, shoes. These stylish accessories, which bely the rise of consumer culture, extend into Leiter’s formal work as a fashion photographer for Harper’s Bazaar, and more personal images of his long-time partner and once-model Soames Bantry.
While Lieter has continued make pictures, he’s resisted the trend for large scale work, and a gallery of recent prints is only vaguely discernable as contemporary—more so by a perceptible lack of the period style that graces the earlier work. Like the photographs recently unearthed by Vivian Maier, Leiter’s work, particularly his color images from the 1950s and ‘60s, has set curators and photo-historians clambering to show his pictures and adjust the canon to accommodate his achievements. But Leiter, of course, is very much alive and involved in this process, and his humorously misanthropic personality undercuts the institutional efforts to claim him as living legend: ‘Maybe I’ll go back to being a failure,’ he quips in one interview, ‘it was a nice time.’