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Book Review: Early Black and White


Book Review Early Black and White By Saul Leiter Reviewed by Adam Bell For most photographers, Saul Leiter (1923-2013) needs no introduction. Although Leiter has received increasing critical acclaim and attention, for a long time he typified the ‘photographer’s photographer,’ an awkward moniker, but one that recognizes that he was, and is, greatly admired by peers who knew his work, but who operated largely outside the radar of the fine art and photography world for most of his life.


Early Black and White. By Saul Leiter.
Steidl, 2014.
Early Black and White
Reviewed by Adam Bell

Early Black and White
Photographs by Saul Leiter. Introduction by Martin Harrison.
Steidl, Gottingen, 2014. 416 pp., 280 tritone illustrations, 8x8".


For most photographers, Saul Leiter (1923-2013) needs no introduction. Although Leiter has received increasing critical acclaim and attention, for a long time he typified the ‘photographer’s photographer,’ an awkward moniker, but one that recognizes that he was, and is, greatly admired by peers who knew his work, but who operated largely outside the radar of the fine art and photography world for most of his life. Best known for his painterly color work, Leiter also shot a great deal of black and white photography. Although included in a few anthologies, this work is less well known than his rightly celebrated color work. The two volumes of Leiter’s highly anticipated Early Black and White collects a largely unseen trove of remarkable black and white work from the late-40s and 50s. Divided into two volumes, Exterior and Interior, the books contain nudes, portraits, still-lifes and street photography brimming with elegant beauty and understated grace.

Early Black and White. By Saul LeiterSteidl, 2014.

Tragically, Leiter died this past November at the age of 89, just as he was beginning to receive the acclaim he deserved. His 2008 book Early Color has sold out multiple editions, he had been the subject of a major retrospective, and he has rightly been recognized as an early pioneer of color photography, not to mention one of the medium’s masters. He was even the subject of a recent documentary film by Tomas Leach, In No Great Hurry, which offered a rare glimpse into an otherwise private life. Although Leiter worked commercially and was known among New York photographers and photo editors in the late-40s, 50s and 60s, he was brought to wider attention in 1992 with the publication of Jane Livingston’s The New York School of Photography: 1936-1963, which also included the work of Ted Croner, Louis Faurer, Leon Levonstein, Lisette Model, Diane Arbus, Sid Grossman, Helen Levitt and others.

Early Black and White. By Saul LeiterSteidl, 2014.

It seems fitting that Leiter moved to New York in 1946 with the intent of being a painter. However, at the encouragement of his friend, the painter Richard Pousette-Dart, Leiter began to photograph. Leiter continued to paint his entire life, but he quickly fell in love with photography. Prior to his later acclaim, Leiter enjoyed small successes and was quickly recognized as an accomplished and talented photographer. In 1953, he was included in the show Always the Young Strangers at MoMA organized by Edward Steichen. He was also invited to show in Steichen’s The Family of Man in 1955, but declined, believing his work was not up to par. He was even scheduled to appear in a show with Robert Frank at the Photo League, but the show was cancelled when the League closed. Through a series of near misses and due in no small part to his own personal hesitancy, Leiter skirted fame and success. For the ever modest and private Leiter, this suited him just fine. In an interview from 2008, he stated “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.”

Early Black and White. By Saul LeiterSteidl, 2014.

Although more evident in his color work, Leiter brought a painter’s eye to all his photographs. More often than not, his images resemble paintings, like those one of Leiter’s favorite painters, Pierre Bonnard, than the street photographs of his contemporaries like William Klein or Robert Frank. Instead of the gritty hard-scrabble streets typified by someone like Klein, Leiter photographed the city, his friends and family with a tender, light touch. As Jane Livingstone notes, “Leiter has forged an entire visual language for himself out of tentativeness, delicacy, a habitual recognition of the ambiguousness of things.” Shooting through and around things, Leiter possessed an oblique and abstract vision. Whether it was a window, an awning, or signage, Leiter used the city’s geometry to create quiet, poetic images that deflect declarative statements, but command close scrutiny.

Early Black and White. By Saul LeiterSteidl, 2014.

Whether on the street in a snowstorm or lying in bed with a lover, there is a casual intimacy that pervades his work. The book’s first volume, Interiors, includes numerous portraits and nudes, whereas Exteriors, includes largely street shots. Max Kozloff notes, comparing Leiter’s nude work to those of his near contemporaries Steiglitz and Weston, that “what is interesting about his subjects in the bedroom is that they are treated so matter-of-factly, yet retain their allure. In their conversational guise, he contacts them as equals, not as icons.” Like the Interior work, the photographs in Exterior have a disarmingly gentle and voyeuristic quality. Never intrusive, Leiter peers through windows, catches fleeting reflections, mirrored signage, disembodied limbs, billowing topcoats and skirts, umbrellas, worn shoes and bobbing hats. His work invites us to share in the visual delights of the world as seen through the lens.

Accompanying the work are two excellent essays, one by Max Kozloff and another by Jane Livingstone, adapted from her book The New York School of Photography. The two volumes come in a modest slipcase and are beautifully printed. Containing over two hundred photographs, the two volumes add substantially to the available images of Leiter’s work. While the two volumes might have been more closely edited, there are so many wonderful pictures that it seems foolish to find fault with such abundant treasure.

Early Black and White. By Saul LeiterSteidl, 2014.

Remarkably, Leiter continued to photography in his beloved East Village neighborhood for nearly fifty-years. Towards the end of his life, you could find Leiter out and about with his digital camera — still delighting in the pictures he found and captured. If one was lucky, you could also catch him at the Strand Book Store pursuing art and photobooks or dining at Veselka, the Ukranian institution on 2nd Avenue. Long overdue, Early Black and White shows us the incredible work Leiter also created in black and white. At the time of his death, Leiter left behind countless images — mostly unprinted or unedited in his apartment, hiding in boxes or on slides. We can only hope that there are more treasures to follow.—ADAM BELL


ADAM BELL is a photographer and writer based in Brooklyn, NY. He received his MFA from the School of Visual Arts, and his work has been exhibited and published internationally. He is the co-editor and co-author, with Charles H. Traub and Steve Heller, of The Education of a Photographer (Allworth Press, 2006). His writing has appeared in Foam Magazine, Afterimage, Lay Flat and Ahorn Magazine. He is currently on staff and faculty at the School of Visual Arts' MFA Photography, Video and Related Media Department. His website and blog are adambbell.com and adambellphoto.blogspot.com.

1 comment:

  1. "While the two volumes might have been more closely edited, there are so many wonderful pictures that it seems foolish to find fault with such abundant treasure." I wonder what photographs the reviewer would have excluded from this remarkable collection of Saul Leiter's black and white photographs. Perhaps reviewers should refrain from comments about editing unless they are willing to "pony up" with their own suggestions. Where is Baudelaire when you need him?

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