Saul Leiter Retrospective, FOMU Antwerp

The Saul Leiter Retrospective at Antwerp's Foto Museum (FOMU) is an evocative survey of the late American photographer's multifaceted output.

This extensive collection of works brings together Saul Leiter's color and black-and-white photographs alongside his lesser known paintings and notebooks. The exhibition unfolds thematically, covering Saul Leiter's street photography, his nudes (some of which are painted-over), his delicate works on paper and a selection of images he created as a fashion photographer.

An overarching sensitivity to color, composition and surface emanates from the works. I was particularly impressed by Leiter's dexterity across both mediums and by the distinctness of his vision.

Saul Leiter (1923-2013) first trained as a rabbi but upon his move to New York from Pennsylvania in 1946 he took up painting instead. He progressively delved into photography, taking most of his pictures within a few blocks of his East Village apartment. His pioneering experiments (first in black-and-white then in color) came at a time when the use of color in photography was relegated to advertising and dismissed by the artistic establishment. Saul Leiter's photographs, which only gained public recognition late in his life, provide a rare chromatic document and an immersion into the 1950s New York City atmosphere he so vividly captured.

Saul Leiter Retrospective , installation view.

Saul Leiter Retrospective, installation view.

The works are alternatively installed in a linear way, with the framed images following each other in a sequence, or in clusters forming constellations that delineate a related group of images, as is the case with a series of black-and-white shots taken at Halloween and one depicting shoes.

The exhibition's layout around a partition wall with various openings brings to mind the feel of a city street bordered by buildings, offering different perspectives at the block's intersections. It is interspersed with Leiter's quotes, his maxims (a few of which I've included below) guiding the visitor through their engagement with the displayed work. The curators' inclusion of Thomas Leach's 2012 documentary film In No Great Hurry offers further insight into the character of the man behind the images.

"Photographs are often treated as important moments, but really they are little fragments and souvenirs of an unfinished world." - Saul Leiter

Saul Leiter photographed the street obliquely. Through his lens, he quietly rendered the hustle and bustle of New York City. His eye was drawn to fleeting details and to the hidden beauties of the ordinary. His compositions are complex and the images' refracted surfaces make for a slow revealing of their subject matter. Large asymmetrical swaths of shadow obstruct planes of his images and the glaring reflections in windows deflect our attention from the person being photographed to the environment in which they are embedded.

"It is not where it is or what it is that matters but how you see it." - Saul Leiter

Overlapping street signs, traffic lights and variations in weather interact with the passers-by that, adorned in hats and holding umbrellas among other gear, take on the streets. The melding of abstraction and figuration creates an emotional charge in the pictures that conjures feelings of melancholy, lyricism and alienation. Saul Leiter's photographs put me in the shoes of a keen observer recording spontaneous impressions rather than preconceived ideas about his surroundings.

In his paintings Saul Leiter managed to convey the deep sense of observation characteristic of his photography. His works on paper are relatively small in scale. Most of them are abstract and somewhat flat, although occasionally a discernible figure emerges. Leiter used water-based paints (watercolor, gouache or casein) in loose and at times quasi-transparent brushstrokes, superimposing cold and warm hues to compose his fragile images.

"Seeing is a neglected enterprise." - Saul Leiter

Untitled , c.1960, 21 1/4 X 12 inches, gouache, casein and watercolor on paper, Saul Leiter

Untitled, c.1960, 21 1/4 X 12 inches, gouache, casein and watercolor on paper, Saul Leiter

Progressing through the exhibition, I couldn't help but think about the different ways of making and seeing that photography and painting entail. As Saul Leiter notes in Thomas Leach's documentary: "photography is about finding things whereas painting is about making something".

Acknowledging these different approaches and using color as his driving force, Saul Leiter embraced photography with a painter's eye, creating honest depictions that translate his perceptions into a perceivable palette of emotions for the viewer to absorb.


FOMU Antwerp, Waaleskaai 47, Antwerp, Belgium. Through January 21, 2017.

Copyright © 2017, Zoé Schreiber