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Book of the Week: Selected by Brian Arnold

Book Review Saul Leiter: The Centennial Retrospective Photographs by Saul Leiter Reviewed by Brian Arnold "There are some striking similarities between Dedalus/Joyce and New York photographer Saul Leiter. Born in Pittsburgh in 1923, Leiter descended from a long line of rabbis, including his father, and it was understood that Saul would follow in their footsteps..."
Saul Leiter: The Centennial Retrospective
Thames & Hudson, London, United Kingdom, 2023. 352 pp., 332 color illustrations.


Saul Leiter’s Letterhead

Saul once said that he was a ‘rabbinical ghost,’ meaning, I think, that he had retained vestiges of Talmudic schooling, where inquiry and the interpretation of texts were taught and fostered. He had absorbed that way of interrogating the world but had transposed it to the visual realm: he saw the streets of New York, and its inhabitants, with the narrative insight of a Talmudic scholar. The streets were his texts. His art was to recognize visual moments that evoke our deeper longings and needs, shape them through the lens of his aesthetics, and reflect them back to us.
Adam Harrison Levy

James Joyce’s classic novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man tells the story of Stephen Dedalus, a character commonly understood as Joyce’s alter ego. The novel starts with Stephen as an infant born to a Catholic family in Dublin and ends with him as a young man, rejecting the church and looking for new views of the world to explain his decision to strike out on his own and pursue a life an artist. Much of the novel focuses on his teenage years, a time when he was a student at a Jesuit school and wrestling with his hormones and desires. Stephen’s teachers saw his great potential and thought of him as a possible protégé, another Jesuit scholar, but Stephen couldn’t accept the basic theological premise that his desires and sensual experiences were corrupt. After visits to a brothel in Dublin, Stephen ultimately rejected the church and set out to reconcile his desire with a deeply felt need to find meaning and aesthetic fulfillment from his own life.

There are some striking similarities between Dedalus/Joyce and New York photographer Saul Leiter. Born in Pittsburgh in 1923, Leiter descended from a long line of rabbis, including his father, and it was understood that Saul would follow in their footsteps. At 23, after years of training in Talmudic scholarship, he decided to abandon his education and his family’s expectations and moved to New York to pursue a life as an artist. He spent the next 60 years painting and photographing his immediate neighborhood on East 10th Street, and like Joyce, showed us the deep, beautiful, and complex poetry that defines our daily lives. There are a lot of great books published of Leiter’s photographs, but the new Thames & Hudson monograph, Saul Leiter: The Centennial Retrospective, provides a definitive look at his life and art.

I’ve long loved Leiter’s photographs — the Steidl books Early Black and White, Early Color, and In My Room are all favorites — but I learned a great deal about him from this new publication. Edited by the directors of the Saul Leiter Foundation, Margit Erb and Michael Parillo, Saul Leiter: The Centennial Retrospective provides an extensive look at Leiter’s unique work and accomplishments. The book is divided into 5 chapters. The first chapter, “Beginnings,” is a simple biography, providing essential information about his early years and family life. The subsequent chapters breakdown the major bodies of work that compose Leiter’s oeuvre — the photographs he made on the streets of New York, his work in the fashion industry, his gouache and watercolor paintings, and his nudes — each of them accompanied by a short essay grounded in detailed biographical criticism.

Since there are so many publications of Leiter’s photographs, I want to focus here on the work that surprised me the most, his paintings. The 2015 publication by Slyph Editions, Painted Nudes, offers an excellent look Leiter’s hand-painted photographs, but before reading The Centennial Retrospective I was entirely unaware that he also developed an amazing body of abstract color paintings. Apparently, everyday he sat on the floor of his apartment, and created these small, simple and exquisite watercolor and gouache paintings (he frequently claimed Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard as important influences in his approach to color). Through the course of his life, Leiter filled sketchbooks with these color abstractions, and at times even went so far as to call these books his best work. His paintings are full of rich colors and light, and convey a lovely and delicate humility, as though created with a warming and affirmative melancholy. The simplicity of the paintings is deceptive, each of them representing a Zen-like complexity (apparently, Leiter kept hundreds of books about Japanese art and calligraphy around his apartment). In 1945, shortly before he left Pittsburgh for New York, the art world power couple Merce Cunningham and John Cage bought one of Leiter’s paintings, providing him with essential acknowledgement as he was abandoning his rabbinical studies for art. Founder and Executive Director of the Saul Leiter Foundation, Margarit Erb repeatedly emphasizes that Leiter spent more of his lifetime as a painter than photographer, and tells us that before he ever picked up a camera, he spent his days copying Vermeer paintings. The Centennial Retrospective portrays Leiter as an innovative, multidisciplinary artist who pioneered a modernist vision across disciplines, identifying him as a pivotal figure of midcentury Modernism like William Klein or Robert Frank.

The biographical narrative in The Centennial Retrospective increased my admiration of Leiter and is what separates this book from all the others. Leiter was an innovative artist that lacked the sort of ego or bravado found in so many of his contemporaries. In his essay in the book, contributor Adam Levy Harrison cites an interview with Leiter in which he said, perhaps somewhat jokingly, “I wasn’t ambitious or driven. I don’t admire success the way some people do. I was fortunate to have fulfilled my ambition to be unsuccessful.” Leiter found acclaim late in life, and despite decades of humble living (apparently, he survived many eviction notices), the quiet and obscure life he led prior wasn’t a distraction. Indeed, I am sure it was the quiet life that allowed for such a rich and unique vision to mature. In her contribution to the book Erb recounts a story of the time renowned abstract expressionist painter Franz Kline saw Leiter’s small paintings. Kline told him that if he painted them big, he could be “one of the boys.” Leiter continued painting small; clearly, he had no interest in what Kline offered, recognizing the humble integrity of his work was exactly what made it important, foregoing the gallery attention Kline felt validated his work.

I do believe that Saul Leiter: The Centennial Retrospective provides an important and definitive look at Leiter, primarily for the biographical information and reproductions of lesser-known work. If you are familiar with his photographs, you won’t find too many surprises here. Indeed, there are books that provide much higher quality reproductions of pictures (it’s hard to compete with Steidl). The design of the book is a little clumsy, using too many font sizes and strategies for page layouts. It feels as though the publisher never fully committed to a single strategy for best representing the work. Nevertheless, for those interested in learning more about the life behind the pictures, this book provides the clearest view yet.

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Brian Arnold
is a photographer, writer, and translator based in Ithaca, NY. He has taught and exhibited his work around the world and published books, including A History of Photography in Indonesia, with Oxford University Press, Cornell University, Amsterdam University, and Afterhours Books. Brian is a two-time MacDowell Fellow and in 2014 received a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation/American Institute for Indonesian Studies.