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Diving deep: An inside look at the Saul Leiter archives

Posted on 24 Sep 2022

In this extract from ‘The Unseen Saul Leiter’, Michael Parillo, the book’s co-author and associate director of the Saul Leiter Foundation, offers an inside look at the extraordinary task of mining Leiter’s slide archives, which include at least 40,000 items.

Image: © Nicholas Krasznai

Saul Leiter was nothing if not prolific. Where to start?

Among the many questions facing the Saul Leiter Foundation upon its 2014 incorporation, this was perhaps the most pressing—and the hardest to answer. The weeks surrounding Saul’s passing on November 26, 2013, just a few days before his ninetieth birthday, had been a flurry of activity. After a mercifully brief illness, Saul had died at home under hospice care. Now, with SLF director Margit Erb (who is also my wife) leading the charge and many helping hands, it was time to start making sense of all that he had left behind.

Image: © Alan Porter

In addition to the apartment he lived in, Saul had a second unit in the same building that late in his life had been increasingly devoted to storage, to the point of uninhabitability. Over a period of several months, his belongings from both spaces were reorganized and secured—prints here, paintings and sketchbooks there; books in these boxes, old toys and other ephemera in those. Hundreds of bankers boxes were needed to house archival material such as personal documents and correspondence, rolls of undeveloped film, and thousands of negatives and slides.

First, the foundation focused on cataloging the prints made during Saul’s lifetime, along with his paintings (a few oils on canvas but mostly watercolors on paper). With existing inventory records from Saul’s U.S. dealer, Howard Greenberg Gallery, offering a head start, Margit and the team used Artsystems relational database software for data entry, plus an Epson scanner for imaging smaller works and a copy-stand-and-camera setup for the works that wouldn’t fit on the scanner. I joined the foundation full time in September 2015 and got busy cataloging prints and paintings.


Image: © Nicholas Krasznai

The origins of the slide project that led to this Unseen book were simple enough: In 2017 the German scholar Elena Skarke approached the foundation with the idea to base a dissertation on Saul’s work. During a brief visit to Saul’s studio, now the foundation’s headquarters, she quickly found a worthy topic for her research. “I didn’t realize that he took his color photographs with slide film,” Elena says. “Margit showed me all of these color transparencies, and then I knew what I wanted to write about. I found it fascinating that Leiter’s archive comprises so many slides, just sitting there and waiting to be seen. And I fell in love with the exceptional aesthetic of the medium and Leiter’s color images. Even after more than sixty years, the colors of most of the slides are still brilliant.” Elena decided to zero in on Saul’s 35mm noncommercial color work from the late 1940s through 1970.

In our estimate the slide archive contains at least 40,000 items, perhaps as many as 60,000. Now we needed to find a way to inventory as many pieces as possible with the knowledge that it would take our small crew decades to view them all. Keeping the parameters of Elena’s research in mind, we decided to point our efforts toward Saul’s street photography. But—in the world of Saul Leiter there’s always a but—we were loath to ignore the innovative fashion images that comprise more than half of the slide archive. So we allowed ourselves to also catalogue certain work from roughly the late 1950s through the early 1970s, when Saul was at his commercial peak, working at home and abroad for Esquire, Harper’s Bazaar, Elle, and Nova, among other magazines. Practicality dictated that we save the bulk of the post-1970s fashion slides for another day.

Image: © Nicholas Krasznai

At this point the slides were held in dozens of bankers boxes within one of the SLF’s storage units. Inside each box was a miniature Leiterland all its own, a somewhat random little ecosystem where who-knows-what sat waiting for us to come along and have a look. Once we had made some progress in our examinations, we found signs of what to expect in each bankers box—push-to-open yellow Kodak slide cases held older work, for instance, while more recent work was in top-opening yellow cases—but the project seemed infinitely vast in the fall of 2018, when Elena came to New York from Berlin for six weeks to begin in earnest the process of cataloging the slides. As she and Margit started bringing batches of slides back to the atelier (carefully, very carefully), to see the light of day for the first time since Saul had boxed them up, we found that each bankers box could hold slides from pretty much any year with any subject matter in any order. Saul, however, was kind enough to leave us some clues to boost our odds of finding hidden gems, in the form of larger white boxes, often labelled “Selection,” that held slides he had chosen to put aside for future printing.

Meanwhile, we were developing a system for data entry and image capture. The former was quite simple, and the latter much more complex. While Saul frequently left notes on the backs of his prints—title and date, even a comment on the image (“early”) or the printing (“too purple”)—the slide mounts are largely unmarked, and, unlike the prints, the streamlined entries in our database include no history of sales or transfer activity. Likewise, the images are untitled, unless they had been titled by Saul for a project during his lifetime.


Image: © Nicholas Krasznai

As Saul told Margit in an informal interview at his studio in 2013, “I’m sure it is true of many photographers: One discovers good things that are unknown. The history of photography keeps changing as one learns more about good hidden and unknown things.” As we’ve viewed the slides, the history of Saul Leiter photography has indeed changed before our eyes. A good example is Central Park. In the print archive, we have six photographs taken in the park; in the slide archive there are currently eighty-nine.

Similarly, our view of Saul’s work from Manhattan’s Harlem neighbourhood has expanded exponentially, on finding upwards of 500 slides from shoots done for Esquire, to accompany an article on Charlie Parker (“Ballad of the Bird,” 1957) and an essay by James Baldwin (“Fifth Avenue, Uptown,” 1960). As was his habit, Saul blended business with pleasure and took a series of photographs for his own use while on a commercial assignment.

While Margit and I pressed on with the cataloging of the slides and our database continued to grow, planning began for a second Japanese retrospective exhibition, set to open in January 2020, just shy of three years after the first. As something of a litmus test for the slide project, it was decided that this new show, Forever Saul Leiter, would include a series of recently unearthed slide images, shown in a black-box projection sequence designed by Tomoya Kishimoto. Meanwhile, Elena Skarke returned to New York for a month in the fall of 2019 to continue her research.

Attending the opening of Forever Saul Leiter at Tokyo’s Bunkamura Museum of Art on January 9, 2020, Margit and I were especially proud to see the slide projections, and to watch the museum’s visitors eagerly taking them in. Although, as Margit explains in her introduction to this book, we felt a bit of trepidation in offering the first publicly displayed Leiter photographs selected by someone other than Saul himself, we believed the images were strong enough to allay any doubts and could stand alongside the previously printed early color work. And, of course, we felt that as the shepherds of the Leiter archive it was our duty, as well as our privilege, to make our discoveries public.


Image: © Nicholas Krasznai

The rapid spread of Covid-19 forced the early closing of the Forever Saul Leiter exhibition in late February 2020. Back home in the Northeast U.S., Margit and I took a long, bewildered pause along with the rest of the world, and when we were finally able to drag ourselves out of the doldrums, the slide project provided the lifeline. Digging back into the cataloging effort in the hopes of putting together something like the book you hold in your hands, we found nourishment and happy distraction. Just like any fans of Saul’s work—which we most certainly are—we let the images slow us down to take a good, unhurried look; we received fresh lessons from our dear departed friend in finding beauty in everyday moments.

Saul, who did much of his best work walking around his downtown New York neighbourhood, was saying something very timely to us: You’re stuck at home, but that’s not so bad. Look what I did without going anywhere! In a newly changed world, Margit and I needed no further inspiration. Today we find joy as we reflect on Saul roaming the streets with his camera, often unseen by those he encountered, including the anonymous souls who would reach a sort of immortality inside his photographs. We feel ever grateful that he had the ability to capture transcendent yet ephemeral moments of ordinary life that remained unseen to everyone but him. And we rejoice in sharing these seventy-six images, liberated anew after being buried deep in the archive for decades, unseen, until now.

Get your copy of The Unseen Saul Leiter, the first sightings of newly discovered work from Saul Leiter’s abundant archive of slides.