saul leiter: for nothing to happen

NOTES FROM AN EXHIBITION: SAUL LEITER PHOTOGRAPHER A RETROSPECTIVE BUNKAMURA TOKYO 4/29-6/25

He would say that the secret of happiness is for nothing to happen. 

Obscurity -- being ignored --  to him was a luxury. "There is a tremendous advantage of being unimportant."

Saul Leiter a painter and a photographer  wanted to "prickle through life tear, very lightly. 

He came to New York from Clevland at the age of 22 against the wishes of his father, a Talmudic scholar.  The year was 1946; he hoped to become a painter. He would spend the next five decades living in the same apartment on the Lower East Side, remaining mostly unknown.  He painted, but he also photographed, using color film, which at the time was used by commercial photographers but looked down upon by artists. 

Leiter, who would come to be regarded as the pioneer of color photography, could not care less. To him, color photography was the most obvious, natural thing. 

"I find it strange that anyone would believe that the only thing that matters is black and white. It is just idiotic. The history of art is the history of color. The cave paintings had color...."

 

He believed that often, photographer's gift to the viewer is to find beauty in the "overlooked ordinary."

"I photograph my neighborhood. I think mysterious things happen in familiar places,"  he would say. "You do not have to run to far away places." 

 

He believed a person's back can tell him much more than their front. He found windows with raindrops far more interesting than famous people.

And umbrellas... He loved umbrellas.

 

Leiter shunned publicity, refused to exhibit, avoided publishers or journalists and, predictably,  struggled to make ends meet (in fact, he was not able to develop his films at times).

 

Recognition came only in the last decades of his life -- in no small part thanks to seminal publication of his works by Steidl. 

Included in the Tokyo retrospective is a small note from Irving Penn, which he mailed to the photographer in the fall of 2006, shortly after a book of Leiter's early color photographs was published by Steidl. I found it very moving: 

"Dear Saul Leiter, your new little book has found its way to me, to my pleasure. The images seduce in their tenderness and their indirection. (And your modesty). With greetings, Irving Penn"

SAUL LEITER - PHOTOGRAPHER, A RETROSPECTIVE, BUNKAMURA, TOKYO 4/29-6/25; QUOTES AND PHOTOGRAPHS REPRINTED FROM THE EXHIBITION CATALOGUE