Mix up Miles Davis, some French post-impressionism, Max Ernst, haiku by Matsuo Basho, experimental scores of Morton Feldman, Cubism, Utamaro shunga (erotic art) and Hokusai ukiyo-e, plus some Norman Rockwell, Mark Rothko and Franz Kline. Steep for 60-odd years. Saul Leiter’s work is all that, but also unique in its vision.
Saul Leiter is not the biggest name in photography, but maybe that’s the way he wanted it. “I was not out to conquer the universe … my aim in life was to pay my bills and to pay my life bill,” he said in a 2013 interview a few months before he died. More interested in making work than networking, Leiter was relatively indifferent to the idea of achieving fame as an artist or being called a “pioneer”of color photography at a time when fine art photography had to be monochrome to be taken seriously.
The first major exhibition of his work in Japan, which includes black-and-white fashion photos, street photography taken in his neighborhood in New York and abstract and semi-abstract paintings has definitely found an enthusiastic audience here, though.
As Leiter held Japanese calligraphy in particularly high regard and was partial to the paintings of Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard, artists of the so-called Nabis school who were strongly influenced by Japanese woodblock prints, it’s not hard to see why Leiter’s subtle color palette and oblique glimpses of everyday life may be finding a special resonance in Japan. That being said, Leiter’s reputation is also gathering momentum globally. By turns rebuffed, discovered, overlooked and then rediscovered by gatekeepers of the art world, Leiter is an inspiring figure in his dedicated practice of making art, no matter what the outcome.
The Bunkamura Museum of Art retrospective of his work does an admirable job of showing the breadth of Leiter’s artistic practice, given that his estate includes thousands of photographic prints and paintings and hundreds of undeveloped rolls of film that are being gradually sorted through by the Saul Leiter Foundation.
The exhibition opens with examples of Leiter’s black-and-white commercial work, much of which depicts fashion models half obscured by various frames, and borders within the pictorial space — their faces mannequin-like and emotionless. To bookend his body of work, the last room of the exhibition has some of Leiter’s intimate and erotically charged nude portraits. In these images, cigarette in hand, or hanging provocatively from their lips, Leiter’s female collaborators gaze back with outrageous sexiness and cool.
Between these collections is Leiter’s color photography of the 1940s and ’50s, mostly taken in the East Village. Art historically speaking, these are the images that have been causing a reassessment of Leiter’s work; the point being that he did not get much recognition for aesthetic innovation at a time when it could have significantly altered the course of photography.
In respect of Leiter once saying, “There’s something noble about doing nothing” and “I’m very suspicious of the analysis of artworks,” gushing on about these images doesn’t seem like the right thing to do. Suffice to say, the actual photographic prints provide quite an outstanding visual experience that reproductions in books cannot. The complexity and intrigue of the compositions may come across, but not the subtle shades of purples, crimsons and yellows. The fidelity of digital photography has made these colors “obsolete.”
The temptation of indulging in the idea of Saul Leiter as “authentic” is also a misstep though — and one that, unfortunately, the hagiographic and self-serving language of the text boards at the exhibition takes, with talk about “miracles” and “divine gifts of color.”
Another gem from Leiter: “People are more important than cheesecake” — let’s leave it at that.
“Photographer Saul Leiter : A Retrospective” at The Bunkamura Museum of Art runs until June 25; open daily 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Fri., Sat. until 9 p.m.). ¥1,400. www.bunkamura.co.jp/english/museum