January 20th, 2016
From the Archive: A Visit with Saul Leiter
A pioneer of color photography, Saul Leiter is now the subject of a retrospective at London’s Photographers’ Gallery. In 2013, shortly before he passed away, we sent a writer to visit Leiter’s East Village studio, a time capsule of photographs, paintings, and unopened letters.
By Eric Banks
The East Village block where Saul Leiter lives and works is a short walk from any number of reminders of what the neighborhood used to look like—the Strand Bookstore, the pierogi emporium Veselka. In mythic times this was a landscape hopping with artists who frequented the Cedar Tavern and the Club, among them Richard Pousette-Dart, who early on encouraged Leiter to continue his explorations with a camera. That is a distant memory in this stretch of the East Village, along the streets that Leiter famously photographed during that Ab-Ex decade, today in the shadow of the gleaming new towers that are monuments to Michael Bloomberg’s Gotham.
Once you’ve crossed the threshold of Leiter’s ﬂoor-through apartment, the dislocation between the now and the then is intensiﬁed. It’s a solidly New York space that gets a muted dose of sunlight on either end, but of a type that’s rarely so well preserved. It’s ﬁlled with a life’s work—paintings, stacks of books, knickknacks, odds and ends—but it seems more robustly lived in than cluttered. The hearsay about Leiter’s studio leads you to expect a hovel that would make the Collyer Brothers envious. Instead, there’s a kind of graceful accumulation that feels more like a painter’s garret than a packrat’s digs. Leiter does most of his work in the large room framed by a wall-size bay of windows overlooking a lovely little courtyard ﬁlled with cherry trees, yellow jonquils, and a gurgling fountain. If you forgot for the moment that you were in New York, you might believe you’d been transported to Paris.
Leiter has had ample time to accumulate. He moved into the building in 1952, six years after he arrived in New York via Cleveland from Pittsburgh, the son of a rabbi who didn’t approve of his ambition to be an artist. He took over the second-ﬂoor space in 2002, after the death of his longtime friend and partner, Soames Bantry, who had been there since 1960. (He now uses his original upstairs apartment as a second and more private studio as well as a storage space.) A number of Bantry’s quiet ﬁgurative canvases hang on the wall alongside a couple of Leiter’s own small-scale painted abstractions. His photographs, which belatedly won him recognition as a colorist far ahead of his time, are notably absent from the wall.
“Sometimes I think I love painting more than I do photography. But I love photography,” Leiter says, as we look through a small pile of brightly painted slabs of cardboard at his feet. “I wonder sometimes if I would have been a better painter if I had just been a painter. Would I have explored certain areas of painting? But what’s the point of thinking about it—if you do both, you do both. And sometimes I think you’re lucky if you do both.”
Painting remains Leiter’s touchstone, and our talk is ﬁlled with anecdotes about two of his great loves, Pierre Bonnard and Édouard Vuillard, as much as with stories of the New York School photographers he knew. A self-deprecating ﬁgure at eighty-nine, he is impatient with the story that has long been told about him: how the printing of the astonishing, lyrical color street scenes he shot mostly in the 1950s and early ’60s led to his rediscovery over the past two decades as a landmark ﬁgure in the history of New York photography. Leiter seems more bemused than angry over the opportunities he let pass by and ends most anecdotes with a rolling laugh that oddly reminds me of Buddy Hackett’s at the end of his jokes. His work was included in a group show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1953, but when he was invited to show in Edward Steichen’s 1955 Family of Man exhibition, he skipped it. He famously let other invitations pass by. “Some people have said to me: ‘I’ve never known anyone who has taken less advantage of so many opportunities.’ Someone wrote a letter to me in the ’70s inviting me to show in some exhibition in France, but I never opened the letter until this year. That’s not good. That’s not the way to advance a career.”
Eric Banks, the former editor in chief of Bookforum, is the director of the New York Institute for the Humanities at New York University.