Saul Leiter - The photographer who walked away from it all

text: Taka Kawachi

Early Summer/2017

There are photographers whose works do not see the light of day in their lifetime before being held in high esteem when they are gone. A recent perfect example would be that of Vivian Maier, who unbeknownst to everyone took photographs while employed as a nanny. Another photographer I could also perhaps mention that would fall into this category would be Saul Leiter.

From his work at the forefront as a fashion photographer in the 1950s to his retirement following his time as a commercial photographer in the 1980s when Saul Reiter suddenly disappeared from view. ‘Early Color’ - a collection of unseen color photographs published by the German publisher Steidl in 2006 - became a sensation. Saul Leiter ‘Taxi’ 1957, chromogenic print, ©Saul Leiter Estate

However, in Leiter’s case, he was not a complete unknown, but after being at the forefront in his industry as a fashion photographer, he stopped for reasons unknown, and became forgotten in the years after. What brought Leiter to the world’s attention during his time in seclusion was his photo collection of images taken half a century previously, and the feature-length documentary ‘In No Great Hurry – 13 Lessons in Life with Saul Leiter’ in 2012. But in a strange twist of fate, he passed away just as the film was released.

Born in Pittsburgh, USA in 1923, Saul Leiter moved to New York at the age of 23 with the aim of becoming an artist. It was here through his abstract artists friends that he forged a friendship with W. Eugene Smith, who influenced his venture into monochrome photography. Before long, his color fashion photographs were being published in ‘Esquire’ and ‘Harper’s Bazaar’ as well as the cover girls on the front of ‘British Vogue’ in the late 1950s. But perhaps he had not entirely thrown away his dream of becoming an artist; in 1981 he suddenly put his camera down and walked away from his work as a commercial photographer.

30 years later, for an octogenarian Reiter’s name to be on everyone’s lips again, is perhaps something he did not anticipate. A quote by him from the aforementioned movie made an impression on me: “A window covered with raindrops interests me more than a photograph of a famous person”. Amid the hustle and bustle of the now long gone Manhattan scenes of the 50s and 60s that he captured, he was able to frame the trivial moments that people take no notice of in such a unique way that nobody could imitate.

Moreover, if you consider the generation whose images were filled with the warm colors that would remind people of the good old days of America, Leiter, 20 years ahead of his time, could stake a claim in bringing the joy of color photography to people, more than ‘New Color’ pioneer William Eggleston. Bringing down the curtain to a stellar career at 58 years old, Leiter quietly stepped out of the limelight and disappeared from view. In the years thereafter until his death, to hear that he was living modestly with his wife and pet cat, taking snaps, painting as he pleased within the confines of his apartment flooded with things bought from Greenwich Village, makes his photographic study of life half a century earlier perhaps even more attractive.

Taka Kawachi

Studied at San Francisco Art College after high school, moved to New York and curated exhibitions and edited photography collections. He returned to Japan in 2011. He has recently published two books with writings about art and photography in Europe and America (not yet available in English).

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