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Exhibition: ‘Saul Leiter: New York Reflections’ at the Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam

Exhibition dates: 24th October 2011 – 4th March 2012

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“I must admit that I am not a member of the ugly school. I have a great regard for certain notions of beauty even though to some it is an old fashioned idea. Some photographers think that by taking pictures of human misery, they are addressing a serious problem. I do not think that misery is more profound than happiness.”

Saul Leiter

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“Leiter’s sensibility… placed him outside the visceral confrontations with urban anxiety associated with photographers such as Robert Frank or William Klein. Instead, for him the camera provided an alternate way of seeing, of framing events and interpreting reality. He sought out moments of quiet humanity in the Manhattan maelstrom, forging a unique urban pastoral from the most unlikely of circumstances.”

Martin Harrison. Saul Leiter Early Color

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The first of two postings on the underrated, underexposed American photographer Saul Leiter. These photographs are a delightful surprise! Some, like Through Boards (1957, below) are as illuminating as any Rothko going around. His art is not of the documentary gaze but of a brief glimpse, glanz, refulgence of desire  ∞  snatched from the nonlinearity of time  ∞  cleft in(to) its fabric. What wonderfully composed reflections they are. I absolutely adore them.

The media release states, “… but where his color photography is concerned, he cannot be compared with any other photographer. In the 1940s and 1950s, Leiter was virtually the only non-commercial photographer working in color.” Galleries must beware such bombastic claims: other photographers working in colour in the 1940s-50s include Paul OuterbridgeLászló Moholy-NagyNickolas MurayJack Smith, Eliot Porter and William Eggleston to name but a few (also see the posting on the exhibition Beyond COLOR: Color in American Photography, 1950-1970).

The second posting will be from a major retrospective of his work at The House of Photography at Deichtorhallen.
Perhaps this photographer is finally getting the accolades he so rightly deserves.

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Many thankx to the Jewish Historical Museum for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

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Saul Leiter
Taxi
1957
© Saul Leiter, Collection Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York

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Saul Leiter
Through Boards
1957
© Saul Leiter, Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York

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Saul Leiter
Harlem
1960
© Saul Leiter, Collection Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York

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Saul Leiter
Haircut
1956
© Saul Leiter, Collection Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York

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“From 24 October 2011 to 4 March 2012 the JHM is presenting a retrospective exhibition of the work of the American photographer and painter Saul Leiter (born in 1923). Following a long period of obscurity, Leiter’s work has recently been rediscovered in the United States and Europe. This is the first exhibition of his work in the Netherlands.

Saul Leiter is celebrated particularly for his painterly color photographs of the street life in New York, which he produced between 1948 and 1960. Amid the hectic life of the city he captured tranquil moments of everyday beauty. He was able to transform mundane objects – a red umbrella in a snowstorm, a foot resting on a bench in the metro, or a human figure seen through the condensation on a pane of glass – into what has been described as ‘urban visual poetry’. His photographs are frequently layered, near-abstract compositions of reflections and shadows, which recall paintings by abstract expressionists such as Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning, with whom Leiter felt a strong affinity.

Saul Leiter is seen as belonging to the New York School of Photographers, a group of innovative artists, most of them Jewish, who achieved fame in New York in the period 1936-1963, primarily with their images of the street and their documentary photography. His black-and-white work displays a lyricism, dreaminess and surrealism that might prompt comparison with photographers such as Ted Croner, Leon Levinstein and Louis Faurer, but where his color photography is concerned, he cannot be compared with any other photographer. In the 1940s and 1950s, Leiter was virtually the only non-commercial photographer working in color.

Born in Pittsburgh, Leiter was destined to become a rabbi like his father. But his growing interest in art led him to abandon his religious studies. Instead, he went to New York and dedicated himself to painting. His friendship there with the abstract expressionist painter Richard Pousette-Dart, who was experimenting with photography, and the work of the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, inspired Leiter to take up photography. His friendship with the photographer W. Eugene Smith was another inspiring influence.

The exhibition Saul Leiter: New York Reflections was prepared by the JHM in collaboration with the Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York. Besides over 60 color and 40 black-and-white examples of his street photography, a small selection of fashion photographs, paintings, and painted photographs will be shown. Visitors will also be able to watch a recent documentary about Leiter by the British film maker Tomas Leach. This autumn, the publisher Steidl will be publishing the third edition of Early Color, the first book of Leiter’s photographs, compiled in 2006 by Martin Harrison of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.”

Press release from the Jewish Historical Museum website

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Saul Leiter
Foot on El
1954
© Saul Leiter, Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York

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Saul Leiter
Paris
1959
© Saul Leiter, Collection Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York

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Saul Leiter
Reflection
1958
© Saul Leiter, Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York

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Saul Leiter
Taxi
1956
© Saul Leiter, Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York

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Saul Leiter
Walk with Soames
© Saul Leiter, Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York

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Jewish Historical Museum
Nieuwe Amstelstraat
1
1011 PL Amsterdam
T: +31 (0)20 5 310 310

Opening hours:
daily from 11.00 – 17.00

Jewish Historical Museum website

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes the Art Blart blog which reviews exhibitions in Melbourne, Australia and posts exhibitions from around the world. He has a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne and is currently studying a Master of Art Curatorship at The University of Melbourne.

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