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Issue No. 17 - Enigma

Book Review: Early Black and White by Saul Leiter

Book Review: Early Black and White by Saul Leiter

Image Above: Saul Leiter, Self-Portrait with Inez, c. 1947  © Early Black and White by Saul Leiter, published by Steidl www.steidl.de A nude woman is sprawled along the wrinkled sheets, her elongated torso tilts towards the ceiling and angled limbs knot together in an unabashed display of ecstasy. Her head faces Saul Leiter, who is positioned behind darkened objects, however her arms conceal her facial expressions - it is only her full lips, slightly ajar, which can be seen. The smooth curve of her breast soaks into the softness and fragility of the photograph, ultimately heightening the sensuality.

This sensuality is prevalent throughout Saul Leiter: Early Black and White, a two-volume monograph published by Steidl/ Howard Greenberg Library. In both volumes, fractured frames juxtapose obscurely surreal and innately candid images; some of which highlight Leiter’s incredibly unique sense of humour; others ripple and dissolve into the emotive they were taken in.

Saul Leiter was a watcher shinning in the dark. He heard the echoes of footsteps dancing behind the glass, the sighs of women bracing the cold and the haunting silence of ordinary illusions – and he tirelessly followed them.  The result of this pursuit is evident in Saul Leiter: Early Black and White. “Leiter is a rare artist,” Jane Livingston, chief curator for the Corcoran Gallery of Art, once said, “one whose vision is so encompassing, so refined… that his best photographs seem literally to transcend the medium.”

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Saul Leiter, Sunday Morning, The Cloisters, c. 1947 © Early Black and White by Saul Leiter, published by Steidl www.steidl.de

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Saul Leiter, Barbara and Jay, c. 1950 © Early Black and White by Saul Leiter, published by Steidl www.steidl.de

Born in 1923, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Leiter was the son of a prominent Rabbi. Instead of following in his father’s footsteps, at age 23, he moved to New York City to pursue painting, where he had the good fortune of meeting Abstract Expressionist painter Richard Pousette-Dart and photojournalist W. Eugene Smith, who both encouraged Leiter to pursue photography.

His early black and white photographs were first published in Life Magazine, and then in 1953, Leiter’s work was included in the “Always the Young Strangers” exhibition, curated by Edward Steichen and held in the Museum of Modern Art. By the late 1950’s, Leiter had fully integrated into the world of color photography, and soon began working for prominent fashion magazines Esquire and Harper’s Bazaar. For the next 20 years, he continued his career as a fashion and editorial photographer.

Although it has only been in recent years that Saul Leiter has received recognition for his role as one of the pioneers of color photography, his black and white work is also widely regarded as equally significant. “He has a rapturous way with color, which stems from his love of the masters of modern art”, wrote Max Kozloff in the introduction to Saul Leiter: Early Black and White, “But his black and white production is just as indebted to the lessons he learned from those same masters.”

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Saul Leiter, Jean and Bobby, c. 1948 © Early Black and White by Saul Leiter, published by Steidl www.steidl.de

The first volume of Saul Leiter: Early Black and White is titled Volume I: Interior, and it focuses on Leiter’s interior world. Within these pages are intimate photographs of his family and close friends; his sister Deborah, Richard Pousette-Dart, W. Eugene Smith, as well as glimpses of renowned artists, such as Andy Warhol, Diane Arbus and Marcel Duchamp. The second volume, Volume II: Exterior, presents his street photography, which oscillates between documentary and conceptual photography.

“I like it when one is not certain of what one sees,” Saul Leiter once said, “We don’t know why the photographer has taken such a picture. If we look and look, we begin to see and are still left with the pleasure of uncertainty.”

The pleasure of uncertainty marks his black and white images. The striking contrasts, mirrored reflections, and detachment from his subjects portray the impermanence of reality, and often leaves the viewer feeling as though they have stolen snippets of other people’s lives.  In the 2012 documentary “In No Great Rush”, Saul revealed, “There are the things that are out in the open, and there are the things that are hidden… and the real world has more to do with what is hidden.”

His photographs can be construed as subjective perceptions, and unveil the hidden, and to some degree, reflect his own personal need to hide himself. “I was hoping to be forgotten,” Leiter remarked, “I inspired to be unimportant… the nice thing about not attracting attention and being ignored is no one asks you why – why do you do this?”

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Saul Leiter, Flower, c. 1952 © Early Black and White by Saul Leiter, published by Steidl www.steidl.de

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