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Saul Leiter - Early Color

Saul Leiter - Early Color

Saul Leiter was one of the quiet men of American photography. A pioneer of colour, he remained relatively unsung until he was rediscovered by curators and critics in his early 80s. Even then, Leiter was reluctant to accept the belated praise heaped upon him. "What makes anyone think that I'm any good?"

His greatness, though, was evident in his often painterly images, which evoked the flow and rhythm of life on the mid-century streets of New York in luminous colour, at a time when his contemporaries were shooting in black and white.

In the received history of American photography, it was Stephen Shore and William Eggleston who were the trailblazers of colour photography in the early 1970s, but Leiter was using Kodachrome colour slide film at least two decades earlier. The warmth of Leiter's colours can give way to more faded tones, an effect that he achieved by intentionally using out-of-date Kodachrome film.

Leiter's street photographs are more complex and impressionistic. They are as much about evoking an atmosphere as nailing the decisive moment. It is his colour photographs of New York that matter. Mostly taken in and around the East Village neighbourhood where he lived, they are oblique and oddly intimate. He often photographed passersby through, or reflected in, windows. Frequently, the windows are steamed or grimy and the end results blurred, hazy and multi-layered.

People are often glimpsed though slightly open doorways or partially concealed by pillars. A natural iconoclast and an artist who preferred being unknown to being famous, Leiter was a one-off. His photographs are the quiet, yet vibrant, products of his refined imagination and his ever-attentive eye.

"I like it when one is not certain what one sees," he said. "When we do not know why the photographer has taken a picture and when we do not know why we are looking at it, all of a sudden we discover something that we start seeing. I like this confusion."

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© Studio Nicholson 2021

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