For decades, Saul Leiter was the forgotten man of American photography. Once an in-demand figure whose work appeared in Harper’s Bazaar, LIFE, Esquire, Vogue and Nova, his work gradually fell out of favour. So while contemporaries like Avedon and Penn became superstars, Leiter simply disappeared, and it wasn’t until the late Nineties that he was finally rediscovered. His name’s been back in the headlines recently courtesy of director Todd Haynes, who’s credited Leiter as the main inspiration for the look and feel of his new film, Carol - which, The Photographers’ Gallery in Soho has launched what is - incredibly - the first major exhibition of Leiter’s work in Britain.
Born in Pennsylvania, Leiter trained as a Rabbi and dabbled in art on the side (the exhibition features a number of his paintings, layered onto scraps of cardboard or collaged paper instead of canvas). He switched to photography in the Fifties, producing images which embodied the buzz of Manhattan in the Mad Men years. His fame came from his fashion work - but when the art world ‘found’ him in the Nineties, his extraordinary archive of street photograohy came to light. Alongside Lillian Bassman, William Klein, Diane Arbus, Vivian Maier and Garry Winogrand, Leiter is now seen as one of the great chroniclers of the modern city. His pictures, for the most part, are captured moments; a rainy streetscape seen from under the rim of a red umbrella, or a Coca Cola sign glimpsed through snow, or the city at night, reduced to the blurs of traffic lights. He was fascinated with reflections and movement, and his blurry, dynamic, fractured Technicolour images capture both the excitement and loneliness of the metropolis he called home.
Saul Leiter: Retrospective continues at The Photographer’s Gallery till April 3.