Book Review: Early Color by Saul Leiter

Book Review: Early Color by Saul Leiter

Image Above: Book Cover 

© Early Color by Saul Leiter, 

published by Steidl

  It is quite difficult to capture a moment. Every time it settles on the impenetrable dust of time, the world has a tendency to shift ever so slightly, and that moment is rendered lost. Street photographers capture those fleeting moments, and often it takes a sharp eye to preserve the mysteries hidden in daily life.

Saul Leiter was one artist who excelled at street photography, and had redefined the medium since the 1940’s. Within the last decade, he had also became known as one of the pioneers of color photography, and in Saul Leiter: Early Color (Steidl),first released in 2008, it showcases his uncanny ability to photograph the streets of New York through a spectacular palette.

His images are honest and strikingly beautiful. Leiter has always had an affinity for the beautiful, and in 1959 he stated, “I have a great regard for certain notions of beauty even though to some it is an old fashioned idea. Some photographers think that by taking pictures of human misery, they are addressing a serious problem. I do not think that misery is more profound than happiness.”


Left: Saul Leiter, Foot on EI, 1954; Right: Saul Leiter, Snow, 1960. © Early Color by Saul Leiter, published by Steidl

The images in Saul Leiter: Early Color, were taken between 1948 and 1960. By using expired Kodachrome film, Leiter experimented with rich hues, developing anomalies and varying techniques, of which the results are evident within this book. There is also a painterly quality to the work, and a resolute composition that sets Leiters images apart from photographers such as William Eggleston and Stephen Shore.

“Leiter’s sensibility… place him outside the visceral confrontations with urban anxiety associated with photographers such as Robert Frank or William Klein,” wrote Martin Harrison, editor and author of Saul Leiter: Early Color, “Instead, for him the camera provided an alternate way of seeing, of framing events and interpreting reality. He sought out moments of quiet humanity in the Manhattan maelstrom, forging a unique urban pastoral from the most unlikely of circumstances.”

Leiter was a self-taught photographer and painter. When he first moved to New York at age 23, he immersed himself in artistic endeavours, and even frequented the library of the University of Pittsburgh during the summer. It was through visiting exhibitions, such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, and meeting Richard Pousette-Dart and W. Eugene Smith, that Leiter decidedly bought a 35mm Leica, and began to shoot.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Leiter became a successful fashion photographer and worked for renowned magazines like Harpar’s Bazaar and Elle. During this time, he continued to wander the streets and capture fleeting moments. He would show close friends his work, and even printed some of his black-and-white photographs, however the slides remained hidden until the 1990s.

Leiter gradually disappeared from the public eye, until 2005 when his early color photography was exhibited at the Howard Greenberg Gallery in Manhattan. Then, in the following year, the Milwaukee Art Museum hosted his first solo museum exhibition featuring his color images. In a 2008 interview for a German monograph, Leiter reflected on his indifference to success, “In order to build a career and to be successful, one has to be determined. One has to be ambitious. I much prefer to drink coffee, listen to music and to paint when I feel like it.”


Left: Saul Leiter, Street Scene, 1957; Right: Saul Leiter, Mondrian Worker, 1954. © Early Color by Saul Leiter, published by Steidl

There is a blanket of dissolution covering the possibility of innovative street photography, and this is sometimes illuminated by the aura of nostalgia. Looking at Early Color, saturated by browned-out tones, there is a sense of nostalgia present. However, behind this, there is something far more invaluable. If there is anything that Leiter has taught us, whether through his early color or black-and-white images, it is to observe, follow the madness that inspires us to live and create, and disregard the static noise that cripples us.

By Kyla Woods

Phil "Snapdragon" Stern photographer of the stars dies, age 95.

Michael Kenna: Oh The Places You'll go! at Robert Mann Gallery