Who? Quiet, mysterious, unassuming – these are the words that characterise perceptions of the late photographer Saul Leiter. It was always hard to pin him down. An integral part of the so-called New York school of photographers, namely Diane Arbus, William Klein, Bruce Davidson and Richard Avedon, Leiter took a less celebrated path than his contemporaries, departing the noisy, lucrative fashion world to pursue his personal passion, photographs that find moments of stillness and truth within the world’s most famous metropolis. He was an unsung innovator in colour, two decades before Eggleston and Shore made it fashionable, constructing a luminous, muted palette for his city from street lights, steamy windows and rain-spattered reflections. His masterful use of colour can also be seen in his other love, painting, and a new book, published this year by Sylph Editions, finds the two combined in a sensual, visceral series of Painted Nudes.
What? As well as his visions of the city, Leiter also shot hundreds of intensely intimate nudes including many of his lover, companion and friend, Soames Bantry. No one quite knows when but at some point he returned to this stack of unseen work and began to paint, daubing them, splashing them with vigorous, untamed planes of colour; cultivating vibrant, technicolour mermaids from quietly monochrome figures. The paint is applied with energy and sensuality, sculpting and clothing the women, returning them to the life that the black and white film has stripped away.
Why? "I like it when one is not certain what one sees," Leiter once said, and there is a marvellous enigma to be found here. The photographs were taken at moments of extreme intimacy, featuring women in the throes of personal pleasure, and the act of painting over them could be seen as a form of concealment. Yet Leiter’s brush acts as illumination rather than censorship, creating a riot of colour that heightens the beauty of these private moments, creating contemplation rather than mess. They speak to Leiter’s love of colour at a time when it was still deemed inferior, clumsy even, in comparison to black and white. And they preserve the mystery that was at the heart of him as an artist and as a man. “There are the things that are out in the open and then there are the things that are hidden,” he said, “and life...the real world has more to do with what’s hidden, maybe. Don’t you think?”
Saul Leiter's Painted Nudes are out now, published by Sylph Editions.