The Photographers’ Gallery is currently playing host to the first retrospective of the work of pioneering colour photographer, Saul Leiter (1993-2013).

Saul Leiter_self portrait

Moving to New York to start his creative career in 1946, Leiter is known more for his stunning street photography than his painting. His work is dominated by fragmented shots and isolated perspectives – whether peering out into the snow from under a canopy (pictured), or through the window of a car.

Saul Leiter Canopy, ca. 1957 © Saul Leiter Courtesy: Saul Leiter, Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York. Aus der Ausstellung SAUL LEITER - RETROSPEKTIVE im Haus der Photographie in den Deichtorhallen, 3.2.2012 - 15.4.2012.

Images of eye-catching characters punctuate his shots from these positions; glimpses of kissing couples, stooped figures huddling in the snow, a pair of feet resting on the seat of a train (pictured). These intimate observations are personal snapshots of Leiter’s city.

Saul Leiter_Foot on el

The intimacy of his shots continues throughout the exhibition, with clusters of images presenting reflections of people and places captured in café windows and mirrors. Soft and glowing, all Letier’s images have an ethereal quality that is echoed in their colours.

Saul Leiter Window

His use of colour – unusual for the time, as colour photography was considered a ‘low art’ and rarely used outside of fashion and advertising – is as nuanced as you’d expect for an artist with a background in painting. The cost of shooting in this format forced Leiter to buy expired film, and the resulting muted tones add to the painterly qualities of his work.

Saul Leiter-1950-selfportrait

It is when he chooses to turn his lens to colour that his work becomes more broad and abstracted in subject matter. Purple Umbrella (pictured) sees Leiter peering from under a webbed rim into a blurred street, purple dominating the frame.

From the two ‘lost decades’ of his career, a period where he feigned a lack of productivity, we see extracts from hundreds of painted nudes. Only a handful are exhibited here, yet they are the undeniable highlight of the room – surreal combinations of black and white photography and colourful paint.

Saul Leiter Nude 1

Vivid greens, oranges and yellows bring his models to life, a riotous contrast to the soft poetry of his other photography. Often only a trace of the original photograph comes through, powerful eroticism heightened by the splashes of watercolour.

Saul Leiter Nude 2

Images from Leiter’s commercial portfolio for the fashion industry also feature in this half of the exhibition. Although his dreamy aesthetic and perspectives remain as ever-present hallmarks of his work – doll-like figures observing the viewer from house, a face seen through engraved glass, endless women looking out through windows (pictured) – they lack the depth of his street scenes.

Saul Leiter Fashion 1

Gathering over 100 photographs, sketchbooks and materials, this retrospective offers a dreamy look at one of photography’s most pioneering artists and his colourful vision of New York.

Saul Leiter Nude 3