The Dreaminess Of The Mundane: Saul Leiter At The Photographers' Gallery Reviewed

Saul Leiter at The Photographers' Gallery ★★★★☆

Rachel Stoplar
By Rachel Stoplar Last edited 22 months ago
The Dreaminess Of The Mundane: Saul Leiter At The Photographers' Gallery Reviewed Saul Leiter at The Photographers' Gallery 4
Taxi by Saul Leiter (1957) courtesy of The Photographers' Gallery.

Street photography is often seen as grittily urban, as an 'authentic' antidote to prettified pictures. It's therefore something of a surprise to see the dreamy, soft-focus New York street-scapes on display at The Photographers' Gallery's retrospective of Saul Leiter, an artist known for his street photography.

The curators are championing Leiter as a pioneer of colour photography, yet his approach to colour is an odd one. His is not a vivid palette but one of muted hues: a dull brownish red umbrella here, a subdued creamy yellow scarf there. Even the fashion shots published in glossy magazines are not vibrant and hyper-defined as we see now, but ethereal and intangible (an unusual way of ultimately selling products).

Part of this is down to his penny-pinching use of out-of-date film — colour film was expensive when it first appeared on the market in the late 30s. But there's more to it. Leiter's fascination is not with seminal moments but with fleeting glimpses, and the delicate colouring makes for these fast-fading impressions.

This is a far cry from the socially-conscious realism of Walker Evans or Robert Frank, both legendary . Yet there's a different, more emotional reality at play in Leiter's work. A particular favourite is one with raindrops on a window — we feel that particular cosy melancholy that comes with being indoors when it's dreary outside. Leiter's not trying to comment on big issues; he's content with capturing fragments of everyday life, and taken as such we appreciate his off-kilter framing, his blurred edges, his outsider perspective.

A photograph entitled Christmas — a bit of meagrely snow-dusted greenery seen through a misted-up window with a bland building in the background — had an unexpectedly strong effect on us. It was viscerally relatable, not a fairytale display but the kind of real, mundane moment that we all actually experience at such a hyped-up time of year. This is what Saul Leiter's all about: his photos are basically the opposite of Instagram.

Saul Leiter is at The Photographers' Gallery, 16-18 Ramillies Street W1F 7LW, until 3 April. Tickets to the whole gallery (including other exhibitions) are free before 12pm, £2.50/£2 after 12pm with advance booking and £3/£2.50 on the door. Londonist saw this exhibition on a complimentary press ticket.

Postmen (1952) courtesy of The Photographers' Gallery.
Snow (1960) courtesy of The Photographers' Gallery.
Carol Brown in Harper's Bazaar (c.1958) courtesy of The Photographers' Gallery.
Straw Hat (c.1955) courtesy of The Photographers' Gallery.

Last Updated 30 January 2016