Luminous New York: Saul Leiter retrospective in Antwerp


The American photographer who captured mid-century New York in luminous colour receives his dues with a retrospective at Antwerp’s photo museum

Pioneer of colour

William Eggleston is typically credited with inventing colour fine art photography in the 1970s, but a retrospective at Antwerp’s photo museum FoMu gives the honour to painter and photographer Saul Leiter.

Born in Pittsburgh in 1923, Leiter abandoned rabbinical studies and moved to New York’s East Village to become an artist. He bought his first rolls of 35mm Kodachrome slide film in 1948, when “gaudy” colour was only used for fashion and advertising.

While contemporaries like Robert Frank were shooting in black and white, Leiter captured mid-century New York in luminous colour. But it wasn’t until the 2000s, when German publisher Steidl produced the book Saul Leiter: Early Colour that he received his dues.

Leiter was originally a painter, and his New York resembles a Rothko more than a photo: complex, layered and highly charged. Whereas Eggleston’s world was super-saturated, Leiter’s was oddly muted – the result of using cheap, expired film.

Leiter lived and work in the city until his death in 2013. Through his lens it appears elusive – often blurred, reflected in windows, or obscured by signs. Its inhabitants resist identification, too: in “Red Umbrella” (pictured), a woman presses on down a drab, snowy street, the bright umbrella obscuring her face.

“Leiter was not a typical street photographer; he was not seeking a ‘decisive moment’ or a trying to tell a story,” explains curator Rein Deslé. “His interest was in colour, composition, tone and form.”

He also brought his singular gaze to fashion, contributing unusually lyrical images to the likes of British Vogue. They figure here alongside his black-and-white photographs, abstract paintings and “painted nudes” (black-and-white portraits he painted over). Most were buried in his archive until recently.

Leiter wouldn’t have been surprised. He once said: “I always assumed that I would simply be forgotten and disappear from view.”

Until 29 January, FoMu, Antwerp

Photo: Saul Leiter Estate