Saul Leiter: New York Reflections  24 October 2011

Pioneer of color photography in the Netherlands for the first time

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.

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