Saul Leiter: In Stillness by Yumiko Izu

photo-eye Blog
April 2021

“I met Saul Leiter for the first time in the kitchen at Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York,” writes photographer Yumiko Izu in her most recent monograph, Saul Leiter: In Stillness. She continues, “he invited me to his home, and as a great admirer of his work, I gladly accepted. I didn’t know yet that I would visit his enchanting and creative space many times over.” Three weeks after Leiter’s death in 2013, Izu received permission to photograph his home in the East Village; she completed the project in late 2019.

Izu is perhaps best known for her meticulous platinum/palladium prints and adept use of large format cameras. Her previous bodies of work explore a variety of subject matter, all fundamentally coping with the conceptual concerns of the passage of time and life’s ephemerality. With Saul Leiter: In Stillness, she uses a 35mm camera and color film, a fitting change of approach given Leiter’s use of the same process and materials.

The home is undeniably alluring — an enchanting coalescence of sublime light, picturesque chipping paint on the walls, and innumerable objects, books, artworks, and mementos, the accumulation of which alludes to the kind of life he once led. Through Izu’s pictures, I built a rough picture of the man, whose photographs I can usually identify with ease, but whose life I knew virtually nothing about. I expected to see an abundance of prints, contact sheets, cameras, and undeveloped rolls of film, the likes of which are often found in the studios of other photographers of his generation. Less expected was the repeated appearance of Judaica (Leiter started training to become a rabbi, like his father), innumerable paintings (he trained as a painter and continued to paint as regularly as he photographed), and evidence of a wonderfully elegant woman through the years (his longtime muse and partner, Soames Bantry).

To say Izu “documents” the contents of Leiter’s living and working spaces is misleading. Her aesthetic — marked by considered framing and a shallow depth of field — creates a particular view of this world, one marked by dreamy, soft nostalgia; Izu’s pictures feel more like poetic vignettes than objective records. She imbues Leiter’s possessions and space with a beautiful, albeit wistful and melancholic, quality. Using full-bleed and nearly full-bleed spreads, Izu creates an immersive environment of intimate glimpses; it’s as if you too are looking down upon Leiter’s pocket watch, up at his perfectly cluttered mantle, or through his stunning picture windows. Her rambling sequence mimics the way one might explore an unfamiliar space, eyes darting from one object to another, pausing to take a closer look here and there.

The book opens with two exterior views of Leiter’s apartment building, one where the façade is romantically covered in ivy vines, the other where bright green leaves appear sporadically on the trees in the building’s backyard. In the last three photographs, we see the garden once again, this time powdered in snow. The final picture is a memorial to Leiter, topped with a snow-covered, green wreath. By bookending the monograph with these pictures, Izu poetically reminds the viewer, once again, of life’s inexorably marching cycle.

In perusing Saul Leiter: In Stillness, I was reminded of how I felt awaiting entry to Casa Azul in Mexico City, Frida Kahlo’s home and studio. Accessing these otherwise private spaces feels like a privileged opportunity to become more connected to the creative processes that shaped the careers and lives of beloved artists. For an artist like Leiter, who lived at his East 10th Avenue home for over sixty years and made much of his photographic work within a two-block radius of his building, his home is all the more central to how he thought about art, the world, and himself. He once famously said, “I think that mysterious things happen in familiar places. We don’t always need to run to the other end of the world.” Izu’s photographs captured a bit of magic, perhaps touching upon some of what sustained Leiter’s interest for all those years.