Lessons on mystery, color and New York: talking about Saul Leiter

Interview with Michael Parillo, president of the Saul Leiter Foundation

There was a time last year when my imagination was fully inhabited by the phantoms of New York. Living amongst the perfection of Haussmannian buildings, in a city that is called Paris – an unparalleled fantasy in its own right – I was longing for streets and places I had never set foot in. As if through a miracle, one day I came upon Saul Leiter’s work, which managed to console this nostalgia of sorts.

Leiter, a prolific 20th-century photographer, is an artist with a singular legacy, an exceptional understanding of beauty and gracefulness. His photographs of New York are cinematic, full of unexpected details, textures, colors and lights, not easily apprehensible, and yet so captivating. There’s always an element or two fogging the view, enveloping the scene in layers of alluring secrecy. Instead of straightforward depictions, Leiter delivers glimpses into the subtleties of life. Leiter’s New York, captured on color film, seemed to be that magical place I felt nostalgia for.

Around the time I discovered his work, I was considering writing an exhaustive account of the car portrayal in 20th-century photography. Naturally, I hoped to include Leiter and his street pictures, where cars are a natural part of the city scene – rushing on snowy roads, popping out from the corners, leaving dusty trails. When I reached out to the Saul Leiter Foundation, it was with great enthusiasm that its president, Michael Parillo, responded, endorsing my idea as curious and original. Leiter rarely made cars the primary subject of his photographs, but it was an element worth discussing.

Even though the article never came to be (it might one day), I clung to the opportunity to discover more about the artist, whose works have provided me with unparalleled aesthetic pleasure.

Michael, it’s a great pleasure talking to you. Could you first tell me more about the Saul Leiter Foundation – how and when was it created?

The Saul Leiter Foundation was established in 2014, one year after Saul Leiter’s death. I was involved in its creation alongside my wife, Margit Erb, who worked with Saul for about 18 years. She was his representative at Howard Greenberg Gallery, which is his main dealer. I became fully involved in foundation activity in 2015. That year was, however, still an early stage – we were still cataloguing what Saul had left behind.

I first learned about Saul Leiter in the Parisian bookshop where I worked for some time. I picked up two books, All About Saul Leiter, with that brilliant red cover, and New York: Saul Leiter from Louis Vuitton’s Fashion Eye series. How did you contribute to these books? What do you think of them, generally?

Not only did we contribute to these publications, we were involved in the entire process, from conception to completion, collaborating with editors and designers, choosing the right images and writing or editing text. It’s one of the foundation’s biggest tasks. As someone with a journalistic background, I always weigh in on text elements. This was crucially important in printing the Japanese version of All About Saul Leiter. That book is enormous! It covers so many aspects of his career – street photography, fashion photography, paintings, painted photographs. The book is presented in a small format and at an affordable price, which was a brilliant idea for the Japanese audience. It ignited a huge interest in Leiter’s work.

 And what about New York from the Louis Vuitton series?

Fashion Eye is a wonderful series with many different photographers, and Leiter was a perfect choice to represent New York. We’re glad they wanted to widen the scope and included both fashion photography and fashion-oriented street photography. They did some very interesting things, chose special backgrounds on some of the pages, mixed and matched photographs in various ways.

Advertisement for Miller Shoes, 1957

Saul Leiter is widely considered to be a pioneer of color photography. What do you think pushed him to consider using color?

First of all, Saul was interested in color as a painter. He would say that the history of painting is the history of color. If you look at his abstract paintings, they are all about color, shape and composition. In many of his photos, quite a large portion of the picture is a simple color block. I guess color and composition permit us to draw a parallel between Leiter’s paintings and photographs. I cannot say what exactly pushed him to start taking pictures in color, but my theory is that he wanted to check out this other medium that was available. I’m sure that once Saul started shooting in color and developed his first pictures, he was encouraged by what he saw and insisted on continuing.

However, Saul also has an enormous number of black-and-white images. Last year we introduced a lot of nudes and intimate portraits for the very first time. We had several shows going on, in Spain and New York, and the release of the book In My Room. Now we have an exhibition at the Helmut Newton Foundation in Berlin, where Saul’s nudes are displayed along with David Lynch’s and Newton’s. Saul was put on the map as a color street photographer, and yet there are so many different elements to his work. It’s exciting to see these other strains of his work enter the consciousness of the public.

Saul Leiter also worked as a fashion photographer for 20 years, shooting for such publications as Harper’s Bazaar, Esquire, Elle, British Vogue… What could have attracted him to enter the glamorous commercial waters of fashion?

I think what attracted him initially was taking pictures for money – it was a job that he could do. He understood that artists took commissions, that there’s a commercial aspect to this world. He was not ambitious, but he was not anti-success. Fashion was something he just drifted into and found he was good at. Saul approached it in the same way as his other work, meaning he didn’t try to control the situation too much. He just completely followed his whim. A lot of his fashion work is out on the streets, so there are many unpredictable street elements incorporated. Saul worked like this for a long time, until he started to be micromanaged. As soon as others began weighing in on how he should take a picture, whether something was too ‘artsy’ for the advertisement in question, he just packed up his things and left.

Carmen, Harper’s Bazaar, c. 1960

Saul Leiter documented New York quite extensively. How would you describe the New York of Saul Leiter?

Saul shows a quieter New York than we’re used to seeing. He highlights the mysteriousness of the city, the unknowable depths of it. In his photos, New York seems enigmatic.

It’s important to note that, coming from Pittsburgh, Saul was not a native New Yorker, and in his pictures you can kind of follow along as he discovers the city. He took the majority of his photographs within a few blocks of his East Village home, and only rarely shot above 14th Street.

Saul Leiter believed in the beauty of simple, mundane things: a window covered with raindrops, a playful reflection on a car’s surface, a woman crossing the street, a man talking on the phone while resting against a foggy window, a red umbrella contrasting with heavy layers of snow, a car seen through an opening between wood boards… Was he guided by instinct while searching for beauty? How did he decide what was worthy of being captured and what was not?

Saul was notoriously reluctant to discuss the intentions behind his pictures. I guess he wanted everyone to see whatever they see in his art, and not be influenced at all by what he had to say about it. Saul was attracted to in-between zones in life, those times and places and scenes where you’re not really sure what’s going on. He liked to say, ‘I see something and I take a picture.’ However, it’s quite clear that he didn’t see the world in the same way the average person does.

Untitled, 1950s

Photography aside, Saul Leiter cultivated a high interest for painting. How much was he invested in it?

For his entire life, Saul was just as much a painter as a photographer. He left behind thousands of paintings, mostly abstract, mostly watercolor. He was reluctant to draw any parallels between the two mediums, but he did say that painting is about making something and photography is about finding something. These activities were like breathing or eating lunch for him – he couldn’t go a day without it.

There’s a short mention of Henri Cartier-Bresson in the biography on the Saul Leiter Foundation website. The French photographer, whose exhibition Leiter saw in New York, is cited as an inspiration. Were there any other artists that inspired Saul’s work in any way?

Saul Leiter knew of just about everyone in the art world. Through reading, he learned art history and could give you at least a short description of anybody’s work. He didn’t talk much about being directly inspired by other photographers, but he was heavily influenced by the painter/photographers Pierre Bonnard, Édouard Vuillard and Edgar Degas, who were three of his very favorite artists. If you compare Saul’s photographs with certain ones of theirs – not to mention their paintings – I think you’ll see the inspiration.

He also knew many great photographers personally. An interesting fact: Richard Avedon played an important role in Saul’s success. When Jane Livingston was working on her book The New York School: Photographs, 1936–1963, which came out in 1992, she was interviewing different photographers. Saul was not on her radar at that point. It was Richard Avedon who told her, ‘You should go see this guy Saul Leiter.’ She did, and Saul ended up in the book. It really gave him a boost. I think Saul always remained grateful to Avedon for that.

There’s this funny story about Robert Frank – one day, Saul met Frank on the street and asked casually what he was up to, and Frank responded that he was considering leaving New York and the States altogether because there was nothing to shoot anymore. And this was before his book The Americans!

Untitled, undated

From what I’ve read about Saul Leiter, and correct me if I am wrong, I get the impression that he was kind of an outsider. Was he interested in exposure at all? What kind of audience did he imagine?

I guess the short answer would be that he wasn’t thinking about his audience at all. But he really believed in his work and his vision of the world. Saul knew that he was good, and he really enjoyed it when people appreciated his work. We must remember that before the book Saul Leiter: Early Color, which was published in 2006, he lived in obscurity and close to poverty for many years. As soon as this book was released, it altered the view on color photography and added a new voice to the conversation.

It’s simply incredible: Saul had this work around for decades; he showed it to people, occasionally some photographs would be exhibited or even bought – sales were minimal, though – and then he would plunge into obscurity again. Early Color brought him newfound success, and it was lovely to see how much he enjoyed it. He went around the world, gave talks, met admirers of his and was always delighted to interact with them. But in terms of ambition, Saul never was a self-promoter, never aggressive about getting his work to be seen. Saul was essentially dedicated to the process of creation, and wasn’t much interested in anything that goes after.

Why do you think this book was such a catalyst for his newfound success?

I think the book came out at exactly the right time. Until fairly recently, color photography wasn’t accepted in the art world in the same manner as black and white. It just wasn’t taken as seriously. This attitude started to loosen up long after Saul took the photographs in the book, which were done mostly in the 1950s. By the time Early Color came out, the world was ready for Saul Leiter.

Let’s imagine photographers of our day looking at Saul Leiter’s work. Do you think there are any lessons to be drawn?

Beyond the beauty and creativity of the images themselves, I think any photographer would relish looking at Saul’s work, if only if it helps to give someone the confidence to pursue his or her own vision – whatever that vision is. To me, individuality is one of the hallmarks of any great artist, and Saul had that in spades. It’s inspiring to see how, throughout his body of work, he has no choice but to always be himself.

Images © Saul Leiter Foundation, courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery

Cover image: Phone Call, 1957

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