Saul Leiter, whose late-life, full-on “rediscovery” was one of the pleasures of our new millennium, died in 2013 at 89 but is very much alive and well at the bookstore. Three new and recent collections of his work provide a fuller and more insightful portrait of the modest, charming, self-taught artist who said, “I was not prepared, I think, to live in the world, and so I did photography.” The quote is from Saul Leiter: The Ballad of Soames Bantry (Howard Greenberg/Lumiere Press), Michael Torosian’s handsomely produced tribute and memoir. Cobbled together from reminiscences, interviews, conversations, and reviews, with an unusually sensitive selection of Leiter’s (tipped-in) photographs and paintings, The Ballad captures not just Leiter’s voice but his maverick spirit. Bantry, whom Leiter met as a model, was his partner and his muse; they shared an often precarious life and a pair of apartments in New York’s East Village. Many of Leiter’s pictures were made in the streets nearby, but after he walked away from his career as a fashion and editorial photographer in the late 1960s, only close friends saw them. A small but fervent cult began forming once Jane Livingston inducted Leiter into The New York School with her 1992 book; following Steidl’s publication of Early Color in 2006, that cult exploded. At 83, Leiter, who had no interest in fame, was suddenly a phenomenon. The Ballad takes all this as a given and sketches in rich, granular details about both Leiter and Bantry, including Esquire’s Robert Benton’s first impression of the photographer as “an unmade bed.” “I believe the reason I developed something on my own as a photographer was because I did what I wanted to do,” Leiter said; he was almost incapable of doing otherwise.
Whether he was working in black and white or color, Leiter tended to see the world indirectly and in layers. His pictures are full of obstructions, reflections, distractions, and asides. The reproductions in The Ballad offer some prime examples of this uniquely urban, multi-faceted vision. There are many more in New York: Saul Leiter, a slim, stylish book in Louis Vuitton’s Fashion Eye series that rounds up both editorial and personal work touching, however tangentially, on fashion and the city. With a text by Martin Harrison, whose inclusion of Leiter in his 1991 history of fashion photography, Appearances, anticipated his cult, the book is most valuable for its reprint of a rare portfolio from the Comme des Garçons oversize publication called Six. Leiter’s black-and-white, on-the-street contribution to the magazine’s fourth issue, in 1989, ran 50 memorably unglamorous pages and still looks groundbreaking. That portfolio is an ideal segue to Saul Leiter: In My Room (Steidl), a collection of undated, uncaptioned, black-and-white photographs made over three decades beginning in 1952. The settings and situations are more intimate and charged than Leiter’s street work, but these pictures of women – sometimes naked, often in bed – are just as layered as any he made, and considerably more seductive. As a painter, Leiter often took inspiration from Vuillard, Bonnard, and Degas, and there’s a similar mood of unselfconscious, unguarded sensuality in these images, recalling the bohemian Village Jack Kerouac wrote about. “I chose as my companions in life women who were extremely impractical and who had a great appreciation for the unnecessary,” Leiter said. Seeing them here, ripe, insouciant, and playful, who could blame him? François Halard provides a splendid coda to In My Room with Saul Leiter (Libraryman), a book of photographs made in many of these same rooms before one apartment was sold and the other repurposed for the Leiter Foundation. Halard’s sensitivity to space, light, and texture – to peeling plaster and spattered paint – is a match for Leiter’s own. The book is an homage and a love letter.