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World's first major Saul Leiter retrospective opens at Hamburg's Deichtorhallen
Saul Leiter: Taxi, ca. 1957 © Saul Leiter Courtesy: Saul Leiter, Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York.

HAMBURG.- The House of Photography at Deichtorhallen is highlighting the oeuvre of 88-year-old photographer and painter Saul Leiter in the world’s first major retrospective. The exhibition covers more than 400 works and brings together in marvelous combination his early black-and-white and color photographs, fashion images, painted- over nude photographs, paintings and his sketchbooks, which have never gone on public view before. Then final chapter in the exhibition is dedicated to Saul Leiter’s most recent photographic works, which he continues to take on the streets in his neighborhood in New York’s East Village.

Saul Leiter was born in 1923 in Pittsburgh and it was not until a few years ago that his work received due recognition for its pioneering role in the emergence of color photography. As early as 1946, and thus well before the representatives of »New Color Photography« in the 1970s (such as William Eggleston and Stephen Shore) he was one of the first to use color photography, despite it being despised by artists of the day, for his free artistic shots. »The older photo-aesthetic views on the hegemony of black-and-white and the dating in photo history of the artistic use of color photography to the early 1970s need to be critically revisited. With Saul Leiter’s oeuvre, the history of photography essentially has to be rewritten,« comments curator Ingo Taubhorn.

Saul Leiter has always seen himself as both painter and photograph. In his painting and in his photographs he tends clearly to abstraction and a surface feel. Often there are large, deep black surfaces caused by shadows that take up as much as three quarters of the photographs. These are images that do not present passers-by as individuals, but as blurred color impulses, behind panes of glass or wedges between house walls and traffic signs. He espouses a fluid transition between the abstract and the figurative in his paintings and photographs. Saul Leiter’s street photography, and in this genre his work is quite without precedent, is actually painting that has become photography, as Rolf Nobel writes in the book accompanying the exhibition.

Saul Leiter discovered his passion for art at an early date and started painting as a teenager at the end of the 1940s. His family did not support him in his artistic endeavors as his father, a renowned Talmudic rabbi and scholar, always hoped his son Saul would one day follow him in the family tradition and become a rabbi. Leiter was self-taught, but by no means uneducated. He read and learned a lot about art, such that his knowledge and understanding constantly grew. In this way, he could be certain that his own thought and artistic efforts were duly related to the historical context, as Carrie Springer, curator at the Whitney Museum in New York, points out in the catalog.

In 1946, shortly after he had moved to New York, Leiter got to know Richard Poussette-Dart, who introduced him to photography, a medium that Leiter found very much to his liking and which he quickly made his own. Leiter soon resolved to make use of photography not only as a means of making art but as a way of earning a living. He started taking fashion photographs and thanks to his good eye, his playful sense of humor, and his pronounced sense of elegance, swiftly emerged as an extraordinary fashion photographer.

In the 1950s, LIFE magazine brought out the first photospreads of Saul Leiter’s first black-and-white images. For example, he took part in the exhibition on »Always the young strangers« (1953) curated by Edward Steichen at the Museum of Modern Art. From 1958 to 1967, Leiter worked for Harper’s Bazaar. All in all he was to spend some 20 years photographing for both the classic magazines and more recent ones, such as Esquire and Harper’s: Show, Elle, British Vogue, Queen and Nova.

Saul Leiter was born in 1923 in Pittsburgh and has lived since 1946 in New York. For over 40 years, until her death in 2002New York artist Soames Bantry was his partner. During the preparations for the Hamburg exhibition, Saul Leiter once remarked that he wished that Soames Bantry has received the same attention from the art world as he is now receiving. This spawned the idea of an homage to Soames Bantry, an exhibition in the exhibition at House of Photography that Saul Leiter has himself curated – with over 20 paintings: For Soames with Love Saul.

In his photographs, the genres of street life, portraiture, still lifes, fashion and architectural photography meld. He comes across his themes, such as shop windows, passers-by, cars, signs and (a recurrent motif) umbrellas, in the direct vicinity of his apartment in New York, where he has now lived for almost 60 years. The lack of clear detail, the blurring of movement and the reduction in depth of field, the compensation for or deliberate avoidance of the necessary light as well as the alienation caused by photographing through windows and by reflections all blend to create a language of color fueled by a semi-real, semi-abstract urban space. These are the works of an as good as undiscovered modern master of color photography of the 1940s and 1950s.

»I always assumed that I would simply be forgotten and disappear from view,« says Saul Leiter. The Hamburg exhibition and the major monograph by Kehrer Verlag seek to prevent this happening.

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