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Photography & media

‘Don’t ask for an explanation’: Saul Leiter’s ‘exuberance of creation’

— September 2015

Associated media

Saul Leiter, Untitied, © Saul Leiter Estate/Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, 2015

Saul Leiter used photographs as the basis of some powerful paintings – but not as you might imagine

Saul Leiter was an original. As a pioneer of post-war photography his meditative multi-layered colour images of New York City of the 1940s and ’50s legitimized colour photography as a medium of fine art. These initially overlooked but now justly celebrated works, which seem to depict simply scenes of street life, are in fact studies on the emotive power inherent in form, light and colour. By turns wistful and intimate they play – and stay long in the viewer’s memory.

This new volume, a welcome addition to the Leiter canon, showcases a hitherto little-known aspect of his oeuvre: the painted photograph.  His starting point for these composite artworks was his own black and white photographs of female models and friends. He then painted over these prints with gouache and watercolour.  Painted Nudes is a collection of 70 works created between the 1970s and 1990s.

In many ways the addition of a polychrome painted surface was a natural extension of Saul Leiter’s ultimately impressionistic vision.  From a subtle soaking of colour to a rapidly applied fiesta of brush strokes, the application of textured layers of vibrant pigment or translucent wash creates real emotional depth in the images.  The sheer exuberance of creation is shown in his frequent  reworking of the images (sometimes over decades). Leiter’s reworkings also reveal his tenderness towards the photographed subjects.

Each image in this book is reproduced next to an excerpt of carefully chosen prose or poetry from a variety of authors, ancient and modern.  The body of work as a whole is analysed in terms of cultural currents and influences in an erudite introduction by Mona Gainer-Salim.  Doubtless some readers will feel this enhances the viewing experience, although I somehow doubt whether these textural elements would sit well with the man himself.  

Saul Leiter always took the view that his work should be allowed to speak for itself. Of course, categorization and contextualization are inevitable in the evaluation of a great artist. That said, as an artist-photographer myself, I have much sympathy for Leiter’s lack of enthusiasm for the decoding of his work through detailed analysis. His attitude is summed up very well by his assistant Margit Erb in her preface, in an imagined response to a questioning of the artist. ‘Always it's why why why. Don't ask me for an explanation’.

Certainly in the form of this beautiful picture book, this work is best enjoyed on its own merits … no explanation needed. 

Painted Nudes  by Saul Leiter is published by Sylph Editions, 2015. 160 pp. Fully  illustrated. ISBN: 978-1-90963106-9 (hbk)


Roy Clark
Freelance writer and photographer, lecturer on the London Metropolitan University Photography & Digital Media degree programme and a consultant for Tandem Education Limited

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