Last weekend, the Milwaukee Art Museum opened "Street Seen," an exhibit revealing six photographers whose style defined New York Photography in the '40s, '50s and '60s.
One of the featured photographers, Saul Leiter, joined Milwaukeeans to open the exhibit. Filled with a humble, sarcastic tone, Leiter downplays his knowledge of the art world as he looks back with overarching profundity at a life of photography, painting and urban experience. He says I don’t know repeatedly. But, after chatting for just a half hour, it’s more than obvious, he indeed knows more than most.
Last week, I had the chance to sit down with Leiter and hear his signature laughter as he exposed his greatness to be part unintentional, part pure passion and part the luck of old age.
Maureen Post: "The exhibit is a compilation of six photographers, how would you say your work fits into the New York school of photography?"
Saul Leiter: "How does it fit in? I don’t know. [Leiter laughs] I wasn’t thinking very much about being part of a movement; I did what I did and other people did what they did and there may be some connections and usually with the passage of time, people decide to study the past and they make up schools. Not everyone who was a member of the Cuban movement knew everyone else and agreed with everyone else, not everyone who was an impressionist thought of themselves as an impressionist, there were great differences between say Renoir and Monet. "
MP: How did you come to be called a "Street Photographer?"
SL: I never thought of myself particularly as a street photographer because the street for me, was not about the street. It was a place where I was able do to things but I also did things at home, I did things in studios, I did portraits of people, I did all kinds of things and that was just a part of my work.
MP: At the time did you feel like you were doing something that hadn’t been done before?
SL: I wasn’t absorbed in being an inventor. You know, the reason why some people think they’re doing new things is usually because they’re not very familiar with the past. Because if you really know the history of art, you know that in China in 1200 certain artists were doing abstractions. It wasn’t invented in 1908 or 1909 you know.
I did my work because certain things interested me, and I wasn’t out to be the inventor of anything. And, in the recent period, some people decided I was some kind of pioneer and I’m not going to argue with them.
MP: At the time, were you familiar with or did you have contact with the other photographers in the exhibit?
SL: No. I knew Robert Frank, we used to run into each other sometimes but I was not a great friend of his, but I admired his work. I knew about Klein, his work was reproduced in books and magazines. My friends were not photographers so much, I was more friendly with painters and poets and people of that sort. I didn’t think of myself solely in terms of that.
MP: What drew you from painting to photography?
SL: I was trying to earn a living and I thought maybe in photography I could earn a living. I had a camera that my mother bought me when I was very young, maybe twelve or thirteen but I was never very serious about photography. I was very interested in trying to pay my rent and my light bill. I used to say to my friends, my great concern in life is to pay my light bill because I had had my lights turn off because I hadn’t paid my bill. [laughs]
MP: And so, how did you learn how and what to photograph?
SL: I just did what I felt like doing. For many, many years, my work was not appreciated. I always had certain people in my life who admired what I did but I was not well known. For a while people knew me as a fashion photographer but didn’t know my personal work.
The book, "Early Color," was something that people knew very little about. And some of the people who used to work for me, thought I had too many slides and thought I ought to throw them out or get rid of them because there were just too many around and all these boxes of slides, no one’s interested in them. But, I kept them. [laughs]
MP: Would you say that’s the reason a lot of your color work wasn’t seen for so long?
SL: Well, first of all, I’ve never been that ambitious. I enjoyed photography but I was not obsessed with becoming famous. I f you want to have a career in anything, you have to be very serious about having a career and you have to do certain things and try to become known. And I didn’t do that a lot. I recently opened up a letter that I got in 1974, inviting me to show in Paris but I never opened the letter. [laughs]
MP: And so are you surprised by the recognition you’ve received namely in the last 10 years?
SL: It’s a very nice thing when you spend your life doing something, to finally have a certain kind of recognition which I guess I’m getting. And I suppose maybe the secret is to live long enough. I’m 86 now and maybe if Van Gogh had lived another 20 or 30 years, he would’ve lived long enough to see his work admired. If you look at his work and how beautiful it is, you try to figure out how it is that he only sold two or three paintings in his life. It’s insane.
Stupidity triumphs over everything and in certain periods, people are just very fine photographers, painters, writers, who never receive the recognition they deserve. If you’re lucky, you live long enough to see your work from a long time ago appreciated. How can you explain it? It’s very difficult.
MP: Do you think the fact that you didn’t have formal training helped with spontaneity and candid in your work?
SL: Well, I don’t know because I didn’t have any. If I had had it, maybe I wouldn’t have made some of the mistakes I made. I just don’t know. You can’t tell, because there are artists who don’t have formal training and they’re very fine artists.
Sometimes you read that people who have training, have to struggle to get away from the teachings of their teachers in order to arrive at their own point of view. Maybe if you don’t have that training, you don’t have to deal with that particular problem. I just don’t know anything. The older I get, the less I know. When you’re 86, you just don’t know anything. And since I’m not always very serious, I can’t always satisfy people’s questions (laughing).
"Street Seen" is on view at the Milwaukee Art Museum, 700 Art Museum Dr., through April 25.
OnMilwaukee.com staff writer Maureen Post grew up in Wauwatosa. A lover of international and urban culture, Maureen received a bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
After living on the east side of Madison for several years, Maureen returned to Milwaukee in 2006.
After a brief stint of travel, Maureen joined OnMilwaukee.com as the city’s oldest intern and has been hooked ever since. Combining her three key infatuations, Milwaukee’s great music, incredible food and inspiring art (and yes, in that order), Maureen’s job just about fits her perfectly.
Residing in Bay View, Maureen vehemently believes the city can become fresh and new with a simple move across town.