The first Japanese exhibition of the American photographer Saul Leiter is on view at the Bunkamura Museum in Tokyo, featuring some little-known images.
“Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and I open a book by Matisse, Cézanne, or Sôtatsu…”[i] —Saul Leiter
Saul Leiter spent over sixty years of his life and took most of his photographs in New York City’s East Village, near Saint Marks Place. Over the past years, the neighborhood has become strikingly Japanese, filled with izakayas, sobayas, ramen restaurants, and Japanese specialty supermarkets. It seems very fitting. Indeed, I’ve always felt a closeness to Japan in Saul’s work: the photographs in the snow; the women under their umbrellas; the improbable perspectives and revolutionary compositions reminiscent of Japanese woodblocks, ukiyo-e; and the presence of the seasons and the verticality of the compositions evoking Japanese scroll paintings, kakejiku. There is a “mono no aware” beauty to these photographs, in the color work especially—an acute awareness of the beauty of the transient, of the ephemeral, which might explain, in part, their magical and poetic essence.
Leiter’s photographs were included in a group show at the Tokyo National Museum of Modern Art in 1953, but it was really in 2015, with the release of Tomas Leach’s documentary film In No Great Hurry, that the Japanese public met the artist and his work for the first time. With this exhibition, we very much hope to continue and expand the conversation that Leach initiated in his very thoughtful film.
If compared to Japanese photographers, Leiter’s work would be close to that of Shôji Ueda or Masao Yamamoto, evoking the same poetic grace and delicateness. Saul had an eye, a painterly eye, for the fleeting moment, for the seemingly banal, and for intimate moments of daily life. His atelier actually looked very much like a traditional Japanese house — the dark wood, the spectacularly tall glass window letting in the northern light, the very Japanese garden outside. The windows always held traces of dust and rain. As Jun’ichirô Tanizaki wrote in In Praise of Shadows, “We love things that bear the marks of grime, soot, and weather, and we love the colors and the sheen that call to mind the past that made them.”
Saul’s studio was filled with a myriad of little Japanese straw brushes that he would use to dust his cameras and boxes. Two framed etchings by Koryûsai were hanging on the walls. The studio had the warm feel of legendary art collector Albert Barnes’s house, near Philadelphia, where paintings by Picasso, Degas, Matisse, Bonnard, and Vuillard hang from floor to ceiling and above every door. A painter himself, Leiter admired Vermeer, Matisse, Degas, Vuillard, and, above all, Bonnard. These artists—particularly Bonnard, with his unique tenderness—had a visible influence on Leiter’s work.
The birth of Impressionism was directly linked to the birth of photography. The new medium allowed for a detailed representation of reality, liberating some artists and pushing them to explore new subjects—such as plein-air, or outdoor scenes, and scenes of ordinary life—along with other ways of painting. The first private exhibition of the Impressionists actually took place in the Paris atelier of the legendary photographer Nadar, on April 15, 1874. Auguste Renoir and Edgar Degas organized the show, which also included the work of Paul Cézanne, Claude Monet, and Georges Seurat. This is when the term Impressionism was coined. Saul Leiter, a painter and a photographer, is a direct descendant of this artistic family.
Leiter’s style is unique—a rare and beautiful combination of Japanese and French influences run through his entire body of work, from Hokusai to Bonnard. Indeed, his love for Japanese art might have stemmed, in part, from his passion for the French Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, and from their own love for Japanese arts. Japonisme was the term used to describe the fascination with and craving for Japanese aesthetics that arose in the late 19th century, around the time of the Meiji Restoration, which allowed a broader dissemination of Japanese arts in the U.S. and Europe. The main craving was for ukiyo-e prints. The Impressionists and Post-Impressionists admired the revolutionary printmaking techniques—the craftsmanship—as well as the radically innovative compositions. Many of them became avid collectors and specialists of Hokusai, Utamaro, or Hiroshige.
Both Vuillard and Bonnard were part of a group called Les Nabis (“prophets” in Hebrew); Bonnard’s nickname was “Le Nabi très japonard”: the very Japanese Nabi. It is said that Bonnard found in ukiyo-e qualities that liberated him from Western conventions of color, form, and composition, and allowed him to create deeply intimate and spontaneous works. It seems that Bonnard’s revelations were shared by Leiter, whose work is just as beautifully reminiscent of ukiyo-e: the unorthodox and seemingly disproportionate compositions (“Canopy” being the most striking example); the emphasis on shapes; the presence of calligraphy (signs, letters); flat areas of color (often, and perhaps even more powerful in photography, black); unusual viewpoints and perspectives (high-angle shots, strong diagonals—the el train providing the most perfect vantage point); everyday subject matter; the ubiquity of women; and a fondness for the ordinary (the shoe, the umbrella) and for the ephemeral (rain, snow, steam). Saul Leiter was the New York Nabi.
Leiter regularly expressed his love and admiration for Japanese art, and loved to discuss his treasured collection. He would mention Hokusai, Sôtatsu, Hon’ami Kôetsu, Ogata Kôrin[ii]. To Saul, calligraphy was “the highest form of art.”[iii] In the late 1960s, he randomly purchased a batch of Japanese calligraphy paper, about 65 sheets now referred to as “the Japanese tissue portfolio,” and painted on every single page over the following years. Some of the paintings are figurative. Others, much more abstract, practically suggest that Saul was trying Japanese calligraphy himself, drawing cryptic characters that looked like kanas.
I asked Margit Erb, the director of the Saul Leiter Foundation, if I could look into Saul’s book and music library, to gain more insight into the Japanese artists that moved him so. In his music collection, we found vinyl records of kabuki nagauta—a traditional music that accompanied kabuki theater—and many koto records. And in Saul’s magnificent library, we discovered well over a hundred books dedicated to Japanese literature, poetry, calligraphy, ceramics, painting, and, mostly, ukiyo-e. Evidently Saul particularly loved the work of Hokusai. In his collection, garnered primarily at the Strand, his favorite bookstore, on East 12th Street, there were many books on Hokusai, as well as Hiroshige, Harunobu, Utamaro, Kiyonaga, and Sharaku. We also found a few original sewn albums (fukurotoji-bon) of original woodblocks, including two rare and stunningly beautiful original Utamaro albums from the late 1880s, sold at Christie’s in 1994. Saul owned books on the painters Buson, Sesshu, Zeshin, and Sôtatsu as well. And in the midst of his collection there was a beautiful volume on Corot, who was a role model for the Impressionists. The book, published in 1936 by Atelier-Sha, perfectly embodies the confluence of Saul’s Japanese and French inspirations.
We also found dozens of anthologies of Japanese art , such as a series published in 1932 by Seibundo, and a few collected works, including one about “the decadent Suzuki and Oka” and another on “eccentric, non-conformist Japanese artists.” Saul owned books on Japanese motifs and ceramics, including the work of Ogata Kenzan; art from the Momoyama and Edo eras; kakejiku and Japanese noh plays; and Japanese carpentry, architecture, and design (including the amusing title How to Wrap 5 Eggs: Japanese Design in Traditional Packaging). There were a few books of haiku as well, and classics of literature such as The Life of an Amorous Woman, The Sketch Book of the Lady Sei-Shonagon, and Diaries of Court Ladies of Old Japan. There was also a copy of The Book of Tea by Kakuzô Okakura , signed by Saul’s great love, Soames Bantry: “To a truly sincere and long abiding lover of tea.” (Saul was quite the Balzacian coffee drinker too.) And one photo book: A History of Japanese Photography (1840-1945).
It is worth noting that most of these books were written in Japanese, a language that Leiter did not speak or read, which exemplifies his fondness and admiration for Japanese art. One book in his collection stood out: the catalogue of an exhibition on Hon’ami Kôetsu, the Renaissance calligraphy master, organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Saul dedicated it to his dear friend Margit, and saved a critique of the show by Robert Hughes—“The Subtle Magic of Kôetsu,” a title that suits Leiter himself beautifully.
Finally, there were a few books related to Buddhism, and Zen, and a copy of Edo Satirical Verse Anthologies by R.H. Blyth, in which Saul added his initials, “SL,” to the opening quote that reads: “Dedicated to Daisetz Suzuki, who taught me not to teach.” That sentence evidently spoke to Leiter, a man who chose to be an artist rather than a preacher. Through painting and photography, he transcended the theological nature of his upbringing and ended up becoming another kind of spiritual leader. There is one portrait in his archive where Saul looks strikingly like a Buddhist monk. Cartier-Bresson, a Buddhist himself, would often refer to Zen in the Art of Archery, a book by the German philosopher Eugen Herrigel published in 1953 with an introduction by the same Daisetz Suzuki, a great thinker who played a very important role in spreading Zen beyond Japan.
This analogy between kyûdô and photography is essential in both Cartier-Bresson’s and Leiter’s work: the focus, and the letting-go. Leiter and Cartier-Bresson were both painter photographers who shared a love of Bonnard and ukiyo-e. Cartier-Bresson used to say that photography was like a sketchbook and painting like a meditation. The two men never met, although Leiter did photograph Cartier-Bresson “HCB style,” on the fly, in 1959, when the French photographer was shooting in New York City’s Chinatown. Leiter was too intimidated to approach him. Leiter actually photographed very much like Cartier-Bresson did in the 1930s: with no other intention than to capture a fleeting moment of beauty. They were both very modern men, but they also had the intellectual depth and bohemian ways of 19th-century artists.
Unlike Cartier-Bresson, who turned to photojournalism after the Second World War, Leiter always remained a pure observer, an apolitical eye. That isn’t to say that he didn’t care about the world—he actually cared very much. But it seems that Saul also lived in accordance to major Zen principles: not attaching any great significance to himself or even his art, and having no defined purpose or intent in life except for being present to the world and always highly aware of its fleeting beauty. No preaching, just looking.
Pauline Vermare is an Associate Curator at the International Center of Photography, New York. She is the curator of this exhibition entitled Saul Leiter at the Bunkamura Museum, Tokyo, Japan, organized with the Saul Leiter Foundation, New York.
Saul Leiter: A Retrospective
April 29 – June 25, 2017
Shibuya, Dogenzaka, 2−24−１
All About Saul Leiter
Seigensha, April 2017
In Japanese and English
[i] Saul Leiter, exhibition catalogue, Paris/Gottingen: Fondation HCB/ Steidl, 2008 (English version Thames & Hudson)
[ii] “Photographers Speak” interview with Dean Brierly, April 22, 2009 (http://photographyinterviews.blogspot.com/2009/04/saul-leiter-quiet-iconoclast-saul.html?m=1)
[iii] Margit Erb, talk at the SVA, New York, March 15, 2016