Saul Leiter: An Unfinished World

17 Feb-2 Jun 2024

MK Gallery
Milton Keynes MK9 3QA


‘Photographs are often treated as important moments but really they are fragments and souvenirs of an unfinished world.’ - Saul Leiter

American photographer Saul Leiter (1923 – 2013), one of the most important practitioners of the post-war period and a pioneer of colour photography, celebrated for his evocative images of New York City in the 1950s and 1960s, will be the subject of a major survey at MK Gallery in Milton Keynes. 

Leiter photographed every day for sixty years, keenly observing daily life and discovering beauty on the streets of the East Village neighbourhood where he lived his entire adult life and which became his enduring subject. Upon his death in 2013, Leiter left behind a remarkable collection of around 15,000 black and white prints, at least 40,000 colour slides, a similar number of black and white negatives and over 4000 paintings, only a handful of which had seen the light of day. Once lost to obscurity, his work has since been rediscovered and revaluated for its ground-breaking role in the emergence of colour photography.

Saul Leiter: An Unfinished World at MK Gallery will be the largest exhibition of Leiter’s work to take place in the UK, featuring 171 photographs alongside a selection of over 40 of Leiter’s lesser-known paintings. 

In 1946 aged 23, Leiter took a train from his home in Pittsburgh to New York City, abandoning the theological education expected by his Rabbi father to pursue his dream of becoming a painter. Leiter’s friendship with painter Richard Pousette-Dart and photojournalist W Eugene Smith encouraged his burgeoning interest in photography, opening him up to a circle that became known as the New York School of photography, including Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon, and Robert Frank. By the late 1940s Leiter began experimenting with colour photography at a time when the medium was in its infancy and his contemporaries were shooting in black and white. Influenced by a range of sources including French Post-Impressionism, Japanese prints and Abstract Expressionism, his painterly and often almost abstract photographs are about evoking an atmosphere and capturing stillness and beauty in the hustle and bustle of the city. From the 1950s to 1980s he made a living as a fashion photographer for magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar, Queen, and British Vogue and his personal work including street photography and portraits went unseen. 

Leiter used various techniques, including telephoto lenses, to enhance the painterly quality of his images and transform seemingly mundane street scenes into visual poetry – shooting in the rain and snow, photographing windows and reflective surfaces to combine elements at different depths and oblique angles, using smoke rising from pavements to create contrasts of focus, and fixing on surprise flashes of colour: a red umbrella, a green traffic light, the yellow flash of a passing taxi. He even shot with aged or damaged film which would allow for surprising shifts in light and colour. A strong sense of curiosity made him a lifelong student, and he retained his spirit of exploration and spontaneity throughout his long career in both his street photography and fashion images.

Leiter’s home and studio where he lived from 1953 until his death in 2013 is now home to his eponymous foundation. Following his death, the foundation initiated a survey of his immense archive of over 80,000 objects, including colour and black and white photographs, paintings, and notes.

The exhibition at MK Gallery is curated by Anne Morin, co-produced by the Rencontres d'Arles and DiChroma Photography, Madrid with the collaboration of the Saul Leiter Foundation, New York.