Saul Leiter: Early Black and White Is Out, And Adds To Our Appreciation Of His Genius

Saul Leiter: Early Color

When Saul Leiter died over the Thanksgiving weekend in 2013, he finally got the full appreciation for his artistry that he had always deserved: a big New York Times obit, a loving remembrance in The New Yorker, an outpouring.  He was honored in death beyond the recognition he had received in life.

It’s tempting to think of him as a version of Vivian Maier who at least lived to be discovered in his lifetime.  But Leiter was not an unknown; he was an acknowledged member of The New York School of photographers, which included Bruce Davidson, William Klein, Diane Arbus, and Helen Levitt.  Some two dozen of his photographs were included, as early as 1953, in a MoMA exhibition curated by Edward Steichen.  He had friendships with artists such as Richard Pousette-Dart, Merce Cunningham, and W. Eugene Smith, for years shared his life with the artist Soames Bantry, and worked as a fashion photographer.  He was not an isolated nanny whose images were discovered only after his death.

But where Leiter’s story competes with his art for its sheer romantic power lies in the notion that he was not fully appreciated as one of the 20th Century’s masters of photography — not recognized as one of the greatest artists in the history of the medium — until relatively late in his career, when more than 40 years after many of his early pictures were taken, he shared with Margit Erb, who worked for his longtime gallerist Howard Greenberg, prints of his early color photographs, and was discovered anew.  It was Howard Greenberg who fought for the recognition of his artist, even though it appears that he had, until the mid-Nineties, an incomplete sense of Leiter’s talents.

The 1996 exhibition entitled “Saul Leiter: In Color,” and the subsequent book entitled Saul Leiter: Early Color, can fairly be described as revelations, as exciting as the discovery of a Mayan city, an unknown manuscript by Joyce, the lost print of a film by Von Stroheim.  What the world discovered was that, long before William Eggleston or Stephen Shore brought respectability to color photography, Leiter was producing work that bridged some magical cusp between painting and photography, his images taken looking out into the streets from inside the damp windows of New York City restaurants as striking as anything framed by urban Impressionists seventy years previously.  His framing of subjects — in some cases half of the image given away to a window shade, leaving only a sliver of life to be depicted in an otherwise completely dark rectangle; his eery and precise geometry; his peering through windows of taxis and coffee shops; his use of reflections to shatter an image into multiple parts — was even more powerful than that of HCB, who had a Surrealist’s eye and an architect’s sense of balance.

And now, eight months after his death comes Saul Leiter: Early Black and White, a two-volume companion from Steidl, with a strong assist from Howard Greenberg, and we can now see many of the antecedents and parallel discoveries of Leiter as a black and white photographer.  The volumes are divided, intelligently, between Interior and Exterior images, though Interior can also reflect portraits taken outdoors.  There is no gainsaying that it is Leiter’s color photography that stirs the heart and guarantees his stature.  But the black and white photographs, in many cases, show the same sense of geometric division of a particular scene that his color photographs depict, and which only a painter, or a genius — both of which describe Leiter — could have rendered.

Saul Leiter: Early Black and White is the most important photography book published this year, with the possible exception of the monograph accompanying the great Gary Winogrand shows in San Francisco and Washington.  It is best to start with the color photographs and work backward to these monochrome images.  Any photographer who wants to get a sense of how a painter would frame and envision a scene should immerse herself in Leiter’s work.  And anyone who appreciates powerfully disruptive art should check out Leiter’s work.  Less than a year after his death, with new books about him and his life celebrated in a documentary film, Leiter is finally getting his due.  He received real appreciation in his lifetime, but it was incommensurate with his value, his importance, his unquestionable genius.


One Response to “Saul Leiter: Early Black and White Is Out, And Adds To Our Appreciation Of His Genius”

  1. I didn’t have the chance to view his BW work yet. It will be great to have his BW work printed in these new books as well.

    Saul Leiter was a great photographer and personality.

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