Saul Leiter at The Photographers' Gallery, London

We like to pretend that what is public is what the real world is all about.

Perhaps because Saul Leiter died only a few years ago, I can think of him only as an old man, known to me solely through interviews and obituaries. So to see a young man snapping his reflection in a mirror seems odd. He was until recently a relatively overlooked practitioner, and went without a gallerist or a European show until 2008. This exhibition at The Photographers’ Gallery, London, curated by Ingo Taubhorn and Brigitte Woischnik is his first major show in a public gallery in the United Kingdom. Leiter was a photographer, but reflections and tricks of the camera are his medium. In every photo there’s a degree of self-referentiality, window panes that simultaneously show inside and out, refracted and distorted and inverted through the camera before a final flare is added by the gallery lighting to the framed print.

Leiter’s work could only have occurred in the advertisement and glass saturated cityscape of post-war New York, a city nonetheless very different to today’s vision, but a city that Leiter captured and also came to define. His street photography has inspired many, and most recently Todd Haynes, director of Carol (2015). This show presents his work as one of the pioneers of colour photography, though it is later artists who are more closely associated with its adoption, William Eggleston and Stephen Shore and Joel Meyerowitz through the 1976 exhibition New Colour Photography at MoMA. Starting out in black and white, Leiter adopted colour stock and Kodachrome slide film in the 1940s, several decades before Eggleston and Shore and others would make it acceptable for fine art galleries and magazines. Leiter’s work is red coca-cola signs, yellow taxis, and grey buildings and suits.

Besides this work for which Leiter is known I found a suggestion that our approach to Leiter’s work appears to have been inverted—that his painting was as significant to his practice as his camera. Leiter had in fact arrived in new York in 1946 intent on becoming a painter, the poster for his first public exhibition even presents his gouaches alongside his photography. This relationship is brought to the fore in Taubhorn and Woischnik’s pairing of the colour photos with Leiter’s own explorations of subjects in sketchbooks and painted scenes, but also, uniquely, in photographs which have been painted over in colour, a practice now associated with the contemporary artist Gerhard Richter. The painted photographs shown in the gallery are those of unknown women. Taubhorn and Woischnik suggest these are perhaps close friends or models. Certainly Leiter worked on fashion shoots, being featured in Harper’s Bazaar, Elle, and British Vogue.

This perspective opens new readings of Leiter’s works; that texture and tactility of the printed object are valued as much as colour and reflection of the image. My eye was caught by one small photograph in particular that plays on the contrasting qualities of glass and paint. Unfairly nestled into a corner of the room, a black and white photograph of a window-washer wiping suds off a shop front, the thick white bubbles merge with the border of the photo-paper with the effect that the man appears to be painting himself out of the photograph. Again, Leiter’s use of visual trickery,

I like it when one is not certain what one sees. When we do not know why the photographer has taken a picture and when we do not know why we are looking at it

Photography is so often understood in terms of smoothness, of refined lenses, of mirrors, and the plastic negative. Leiter sets this against the streaked qualities of gouache, a paint that itself can be mixed to form a thick paste or diluted to barely a drop of pigment in water. Leiter’s photographs aren’t just the hard and bitter reflections of a man in a run-down city, but are imbued with sense of how it felt to touch the city, and how the city touched its subjects. It is, in a sense, a reference to the liquid qualities of photography. It’s a soft and tactile medium, soaked in chemicals and dripping, sensitive to even the smallest speck of dust or a stray hair. A historical mode of engaging with photography often obscured by the impression of sleek digital photography.

Saul Leiter is at The Photographers’ Gallery, London, until the 3rd of April, 2016. In collaboration with the Deichtorhallen Hamburg - House of Photography.