Saul Leiter: Abstracting the Ordinary

There is a man standing outside a deli in New York. His long khaki raincoat is drenched by the mushy snow, and a yellow truck rushes behind him. He seems to be occupied counting pennies, hoping perhaps to be able to afford his morning coffee. Pedestrians pass him by. He is just an ordinary working man. Rendered beautiful by Saul Leiter.

Man through frosted window with writing on it

Snow, 1960, by Saul Leiter. source: Foundation/Gallery Fifty On

Saul Leiter had an eye for making the ordinary extraordinary. His coloured street photographs, normally captured with a cheap 35mm, are devoid of superficiality as he captures common New Yorkers’ routine in the city.

As a young Jewish boy from Pittsburgh expected to become a rabbi, he fled his family in order to pursue a career as a painter in New York. Once in the city, he was introduced to the New York School of Photographers, which included the likes of Richard Avedon and Diane Arbu and encouraged him to take up photography.

He then spent most of his life in New York’s East Village, where he would go on to become a true pioneer of colour photography. In a world that was defined by black and white, his refreshing outlook on perspectives and colours created unique images.

Men walking in city in snow

Postmen, 1952, by Saul Leiter. source: Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York.

Image through dark boards with red on top

Through Boards, 1957, by Saul Leiter. source: Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York

His training as a painter was clearly visible in his wonderful compositions of daily life as the influence of Japanese ukiyo-e and Expressionism clearly altered his shapes and colours. The dramatic cropping of the frame, the blurred focal points, the odd layering of multiple depths, … His photographs were pre-emptively moulded by his painterly vision.

Saul Leiter shaped an alternate reality which establishes a sense of intimacy between the subject and the onlooker by capturing pictures through mirrors, glasses and windows, in rain, snow or shine. As one of the first public consumers of Kodachrome film in the 50s and 60s, he would opt for out-of-date film in order to keep the cost of his hobby reasonable. This would embed his films with a muted and soft effect, which would only enhance the mysticality of everyday life.

Back of man in snow with hat and coat under shelter

Newspaper Kiosk, 1955, by Saul Leiter. source: Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York

The common scene is made ambiguous through his photographs, which not only heightens the senses of the viewer but transforms it into something wonderful and mysterious. Somehow, his photographic skills transposes the anonymity of the city onto the people of New York.

Saul Leiter’s coloured street works were however not displayed or recognised until well into the 90s. He was mostly known for dominating the pages of Harper’s Bazaar, Elle and Vogue in the 60s as a fashion photographer, and for introducing colour into the mundane black and white world of Haute Couture.

His career as a fashion photographer was nevertheless short-lived as it never truly brought him satisfaction – influenced by what he called a ‘Zen lifestyle’ he never sought out fame and even claimed that “in some secret place in my being was a desire to avoid success”.

Blurred woman holding hand with ring behind floral pattern

Soames Bantry, Nova, 1960, by Saul Leiter. source: Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York

Woman in gown stands before large painting of man

Photograph by Saul Leiter source: Saul Leiter Foundation

It was ultimately his own wish for anonymity behind the camera that allowed him to create fugitive and cryptic renditions of the common New Yorker’s daily life. By using a new fashionable and commercial medium such as colour photography to render modernity and anonymity in his city, he renews Baudelaire’s own vision of modernity.

It is therefore only fair to suppose that, through his abstraction of the ordinaire and visions of the fleeting moment, Saul Leiter can allegedly be considered as New York’s own “contemporary flâneur”, equipped with a lens.