A lifetime in color

By - Oct 1st, 2006 02:52 pm
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By Evan Solochek

Saul Leiter

“I don’t even know why you’re wasting your time interviewing me,” Saul Leiter says in a soft, weathered voice.

“Really?” I ask sheepishly, “You know you’re kind of a big deal, right?”

He just laughs.

Leiter’s warm laugh, not to mention unwavering humility, would be a frequent guest during our half-hour conversation. At 82-years old, laughter comes easy to a man who simply doesn’t take things too seriously.

Leiter recalls one day a few years back, when a curator from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art met with him at his studio. Upon examining samples of his work she exclaimed, “You must be very dedicated.”

“I told her I wasn’t,” Leiter says through labored laughter. “I think that upset her because people expect you to be serious about certain things. I think that if you’re familiar with art, the history of art and all the very great things that have been done, you don’t take yourself that seriously. There are photographers and artists who are very unfamiliar with the history and as soon as they do something they think they’ve done a Rembrandt. I haven’t been burdened by that kind of illusion.”

Serendipitous success

To hear Leiter discuss his career in photography it seems as though it happened almost by accident, or at least in spite of the man himself. It has been a long and winding journey these past 50 years, and along the way Leiter has sat in the passenger seat and watched as the path unfolded before him.

“No one has ever accused me of being a very clever career person,” says Leiter. “In order to have a career you have to want to have a career and have to be obsessed with having a career. I didn’t find that obsession attractive.”

From this point of view, Leiter’s success can be more easily attributed to raw talent and a unique perspective than to relentless ambition. Arriving in New York City from The Cleveland Theological College in 1946, the then 23-year-old son of a rabbi was an aspiring painter who quickly befriended Richard Pousette-Dart, an abstract expressionist painter who Leiter calls “one of the great American artists.” It was Pousette-Dart’s experimentation with photography that turned Leiter on to the camera.

Originally utilizing black and white, Leiter soon moved to color, for which at one time he received much apathy but today he is most widely regarded. And much like everything else in his life, Leiter attributes this career-defining shift to mere happenstance.

“I bought a roll of film one day and it was a roll of color,” he says. “I had been doing black and white and I bought a roll of color and I used it and I liked it so I went on using it. That’s how it all began. There were people who looked down on color; it was considered inferior by some people to black and white. I don’t understand why. The history of art is very often the history of color.”
A New York state of mind

After 50 years of taking photographs for everything from personal artistic expression to Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, Leiter’s first solo major museum exhibit, In Living Color, opened at the Milwaukee Art Museum on September 28, a career achievement to be sure, but one that Leiter never anticipated.

“The idea of a museum show is not something I considered on the agenda,” Leiter says. “At certain points in my life I often had great difficulty getting people even to look at my work. People would come to my studio and they’d say, ‘Oh, let’s do that another time.’ So you get into the habits where you think you’ll never have it. I’ve never underestimated the quality of my work, but never inflicted my ideas about it on others.”

Often artistically corralled into Photography’s New York School – an influential yet loosely unified group of postwar photographers – Leiter’s photographs are soft and ethereal compositions of New York City street life, a subject matter that Leiter chose more out of convenience than anything else.

“You see, I’m very lazy and I live in a city so I photograph the things that are in the city,” he says. “People often say that New York is a very ugly place, and that has always mystified me. If you’re lucky enough to see certain things you wouldn’t feel that way. A lot of people I don’t think look and a lot of people I don’t think see and that’s too bad.”

Seventy color photographs from his early years, along with a handful of black and white photographs and four paintings, will be featured in this three month exhibit. From the foggy silhouette of a man standing in the snow (Snow, 1960) to an obstructed profile of a cab (Taxi, 1957) Leiter’s photographs cast a spotlight on the often overlooked beauty that exists in everyday life. Though muted, they’re striking and not without a strong sense of curiosity. And while Leiter may reject the “painterly” characterization so often placed on him, it is hard to deny that his work possesses a quality not entirely of reality.

A life worth living

To dedicate one’s life to art is often times to dedicate one’s life to disappointment and suffering. It is rare for recognition to come prior to death and wealth is even rarer, so a true artist is frequently not without a sense of burden. But not Leiter. He takes genuine joy in simply focusing his camera on a subject, regardless of what the rest of the world thinks of the outcome.

“I like to think that what I’ve done is good and I like to think that sometimes it gives people pleasure and that people admire the work,” he says. “I find that very pleasant. I like that. I’m not a complete misanthrope, but the evaluation of what is and isn’t important isn’t always accurate at certain points. We don’t always know who will be remembered in the future. We don’t know.”

And that’s fine with Leiter; he is not out to change the world. W. Eugene Smith, whom Leiter recalls as a friend and one of the great American photographers, wanted to change things and to have an effect on the world in which he lived. That’s not Leiter.

“I don’t think I’m that kind of photographer,” he says. “I remind people that there is a great deal of pleasure in looking at the world and enjoying simple things. That may not be the greatest ambition, but given the world we live in it’s not worth looking down on.”

And one person who always found great delight in Leiter’s work was Soames Bantry, an artist whom Leiter “shared a great deal of [his] life with” and to whom the show is dedicated. She passed away in 2002. “One of the great regrets, if I have one, is that she didn’t get to see some of the very nice things that are happening right now,” Leiter says. “I think she would have been very amused and delighted. She used to remind me when I wasn’t at my happiest that I had done something worthwhile.” VS

You can see “In Living Color: Photographs by Saul Leiter” through January
7, 2007 at the Koss Gallery at the Milwaukee Art Museum. 414-224-3200 or

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