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Book of the Week: Selected by Blake Andrews

Book Review The Unseen Saul Leiter Photographs by Saul Leiter Reviewed by Blake Andrews “Saul Leiter felt ambivalent about fame during his lifetime, seemingly content to wile away his years in blissful obscurity. But his posthumous legacy has been a much different story..."

The Unseen Saul Leiter By Saul Leiter.
The Unseen Saul Leiter
Photographs by Saul Leiter

D.A.P., 2022. 160 pp., 75 color illustrations, 8½x11".

Saul Leiter felt ambivalent about fame during his lifetime, seemingly content to wile away his years in blissful obscurity. But his posthumous legacy has been a much different story. The flame of recognition, first kindled in 2006 with his breakout hit Early Color, has become a bonfire in the 16 years since, raging past his 2013 death to establish him in the photo firmament. Various curations have poured forth since. He was the subject of a 2013 documentary biofilm. photo-eye’s site currently lists 17 monographs of his work and a few more about his apartment. All have been gas on the fire for fans and collectors, provoking not just impressions but questions. But who was this singular artist? What makes his pictures so appealing? And have we yet reached a point of Leiter saturation?

Before you answer that last question, you might want to take a look at The Unseen Saul Leiter. His most recent monograph — but almost certainly not the last — collects 76 slide photos from Leiter’s peak shooting years in New York City, 1948-1966. It’s curated by two people who know his work quite well, the wife/husband team of Margit Erb and Michael Parillo. Erb befriended Leiter just out of college in 1996 through her work at Howard Greenberg Gallery. In subsequent years she helped Leiter organize, store, edit and promote his archive before eventually creating The Saul Leiter Foundation to perform those tasks in perpetuity. She is the current foundation director. Parillo is her assistant.

This couple is as familiar with Leiter’s photos as anyone, and they enjoy ready access to them through the Foundation. That said, the back catalog is huge and unwieldy. Even for Erb and Parillo, it houses secrets among the ~60,000 slides in various boxes. Leiter’s life was intertwined with these containers. They lined his living quarters as he scraped together freelance jobs between artistic endeavors. It was hard enough to keep his pictures safely stored out of harm’s way. Organizing them into a book or show took another level of chutzpah, which he did not achieve until his last years. Even then, it was a small dent in the curatorial puzzle.

Leiter’s unfinished business forms the premise of this book. With the help of Elena Skarke, a German student using his archive as PhD material, Erb and Parillo commenced serious crate digging. Previous books had attempted something similar, but this time the focus was on Leiter’s early slides. He shot them mid-century on various film stocks, Ascochrome, Kodachrome or Ektachrome. They were then mounted in metal, plastic or paper carriers, and stuffed into storage with loosely categorized labels. One box was called “Boats New York”. Another was the “Personal Park Series”. There were boxes for “Workers” and “Street” and one suggestively labeled “Mix”, and so on.

These boxes collected in Leiter’s latter years in a smallish apartment/studio in the East Village stuffed to the gills with art, now the home of the SLF. The book brings his physical environment to the reader immediately, with an opening image of a slide projecting pictures against the apartment wall. We then see boxes and rows of old photographs, followed by a view through the window to its interior, and a contents page laid over an architectural diagram of his studio. The message is clear: this is a book rooted in place, and his home is an entry point to his head space. He spent many hours in these environs, and the opening sequence captures something of what it felt like to be there. Viewed now in the pandemic-era of home confinement, they take on added urgency.

Looking through his tiny digs stuffed with pictures, it must have been quite a chore for Leiter to cart them around Manhattan. He shuffled between living quarters from time to time. He may have discarded other items in the course of these moves, but never his life’s work. They have a very personal character, and Erb asked herself about the propriety of posthumous curation. “I wondered if I was crossing a line…was I meddling?” She and Parillo were on their own. The Unseen Saul Leiter is one of few monographs with no input from Leiter. Its curation might diverge from earlier books but if so, the soul of Leiter remains. Design and edit are subsumed by the power of his pictures.

These take place outside the apartment, of course, on the streets of Manhattan, and they are wonderful. Many photographers have prowled the same grounds, especially during Leiter’s post-war heyday. But his style is distinctive. In fact, Leiter is one of just a handful in history whose New York street work is immediately recognizable in just one or two frames. This might be attributable in part to the tools du jour. Shooting slide film in low light meant open apertures and long exposures, and the singular cast of old chromes colors all of Leiter’s work. But his work possesses a je ne sais quoi that transcends materials.

Reproduced in this handsome book on solid black backgrounds, familiar hallmarks appear in force. Leiter’s shallow depth of field, moody lighting, neon signs and habitual framing through glass or obstacles, his keen nose for serendipity. For a street shooter, he was atypically nonconfrontational. He rarely addressed any subject from a direct frontal vantage. It was always askance, into, adjacent or behind. The cover shot is a prime example, a moving figure shot from distance in dim light, the street lit up by a car’s rear blinker. This picture also captures Leiter’s unusual tendency for verticals, exaggerated to nice effect in the vertical format book. Other pictures range around the city, spanning about twenty years through Manhattan, Harlem, Central Park and the Village. Pedestrians, sedans and street signs pass through various weather. All are reshuffled in the book, seemingly at random, into three new “boxes”. If their curatorial logic isn’t exactly clear, at least they provide nice chapter breaks for essays by Erb and Parillo, in which they discuss the logistical challenges of editing old pictures, Leiter as a color pioneer and production details.

If you’ve browsed or bought previous Leiter monographs, you may be wondering what is new here, and if it’s enough to justify another book. Photographically speaking, this book is more affirmation than expansion. Beyond the fact these are slides, its pictures fit the pre-existing oeuvre seamlessly. There’s nothing here that wouldn’t slot unnoticed into Early Color or Forever Saul Leiter, and Leiter stalwarts will find few new insights. But all of that may well be immaterial. The Unseen Saul Leiter reconfirms — for the umpteenth time? — Leiter’s quiet mastery, and with a photographer of this caliber, that may well be enough. There are 76 new pictures, all well-sifted and considered, with nary a dud in the bunch, and at least a dozen outright bangers. All are previously unseen until now. Their publication is a gift to anyone generally who enjoys strong street work. For Leiter die-hards and completists, it will be required reading.

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Blake Andrews is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at