Near the end of In No Great Hurry, a 2014 documentary about Saul Leiter, we see the 88-year-old photographer kicking back in his chair, illuminated by cool New York light. “I may be old-fashioned,” he says slowly. “But I believe there is such a thing as a search for beauty – a delight in the nice things in the world. And I don’t think one should have to apologise for it.”
Beauty and delight are not nouns one associates with New York street photography, a hard-edged genre popularised by the combative monochromes of Garry Winogrand and the flamboyant grotesques sought out by Diane Arbus. The Gotham of glass and grime, of hustle and raw noise, has gifted many things to photographic history, but naked aesthetic pleasure has rarely been among them.
Yet Leiter – who died in November 2013 – was a photographer of an entirely different order: an artist whose boundary-defying work segued effortlessly from street scenes to formal portraiture, from fashion to architecture, and which also embraced painting and sculpture. Elliptical, poetic, beautifully crafted, Leiter’s images are impossible to pin down. They rarely show us the New York we think we know. Yet they could never be of anywhere else.