Book Review: Saul Leiter: Early Color

Saul Leiter: Early Color

Steidle, 2006. Foreword by Martin Harrison. ISBN 3-86521-139-9 (currently out of print)

It might seem perverse to review a book which is out of print, but bear with me. 'Early Color' is a relatively recent addition to my book collection, purchased just before I left the UK for Seattle, last autumn. Out of print, I was lucky enough to find my copy in my (then) local bookshop for its original publisher's recommended price. Sadly, unless you're extraordinarily lucky, if you want to get hold of a new copy now you'll have to pay at least $200 (but hope is not lost - read on to the end of this review for other options).

Saul Leiter is an important but relatively obscure figure in modern photography. Born in 1923, he started taking photographs in black and white in the 1940s, and began experimenting with color towards the end of that decade. Leiter is an accomplished painter as well as a photographer, and nowhere near as well-known as he deserves to be. 

Loosely speaking, the photographs in 'Early Color' are 'street' photographs. The images are shot outdoors and Leiter takes his inspiration from the people and objects he finds there. As well as the obvious (and to some degree inevitable) influence of 'decisive moment' street photographers like Cartier-Bresson and his contemporary Robert Frank, Leiter's work recalls the paintings of the best and bravest of 20th century artists, among them Patrick Henry Bruce, Edward Hopper and especially I think, Piet Mondrian and Mark Rothko. 

Like Mondrian and Rothko Leiter knows that sometimes color is the picture. One of the most obvious examples of this visual philosophy is the photograph which graces the cover of this collection - 'Through Boards'. The 'subject' in this image is a thin strip of city street in which we see three men, and most of a white car. This strip is suspended between deep black bands - the lower (bravely) comprising the entire bottom half of the image and the upper interrupted by a rough band of crimson which forms the top quarter of the photograph. What makes the picture though, for me, is the vertical black line which divides the band of red about two-thirds of the way along its length - possibly accidental, but probably a nod to Mondrian, who died in New York in 1944.

'Early Color' contains one gleefully overt homage to Mondrian, in 'Mondrian Worker' from 1954. Here, a workman is pictured midway into boarding up (or unboarding) a shopfront, using large rectangular boards of even, earth colors.  Mondrian's influence can be seen more subtly elsewhere in 'Early Color' too. most notably in 'Snow Scene', 'Red Lights' and 'Snow Window', all from the late 1950s. In these images, which are held together with strong, straight black lines, bright primary colors clash unexpectedly with large expanses of white and deep, coal-black shadows. Here, a city is abstracted to its smallest component parts - voids, lines, snatches of color. 

I like a lot of things about 'Early Color', but one of the things that I find most impressive is how essential color is to these images. This might sound obvious, but Leiter is one of relatively few photographers I know whose color work could only work in color. That's not to say that the interplay of colors is the only thing worth looking at in Leiter's photography. Far from it. Nothing about the photographs in 'Early Color' is accidental, and very little is conventional either, especially as regards framing and composition. 'Looking down' is taken from an elevated position, and shows two people on a city street. What might have been a relatively conventional shot is subverted by Leiter's decision to capture them at the very edge of the frame, leaving the majority of the image as a dull grey wash. The walkers are almost out of the picture by the time the shutter is tripped, just about to walk under (or into?) an irregular blue-green diagonal line. Perhaps scaffolding, perhaps the lip of a shopfront marquee, or perhaps the film rebate.

If the framing of some of his images is fascinating, so are Leiter's compositional choices. So many of the physical scene elements in Leiter's work are placed between elipses - present sometimes as shadows, sometimes glimpsed in the gaps between boards, or structures, or as reflections. Many of the most interesting images in 'Early Color' are shot into or through windows. This allows Leiter to quite literally add an extra dimension to his photographs. In 'White Circle', reflection is used to create a totally abstract collage of shapes and colors. In 'Street Scene', from 1957, he uses a wet road as a giant mirror, filling the entire lower half of the image with the rippled reflection of an unseen building opposite. Other photographs, like '463' and 'T' are shot through windows, to incorporate text written on them. Sometimes the effect is surreal, often amusing, but always arresting.

As I made clear at the start of this review, 'Early Color' is currently out of print. However, all is not lost. It isn't the only collection of Saul Leiter's to be published, although it is apparently amongst the most desirable, judging by its insanely inflated out-of-print price. If you're interested in Leiter's work, Thames and Hudson's 'Saul Leiter' Photofile - ISBN-13: 978-0500410974 - is definitely worth investing in at a very reasonable $15.95, and you can see a selection of Leiter's work (some of which is contained in 'Early Color') on this page. I don't think you'll be disappointed. Leiter possesses a fine eye, a sharp intelligence, and a keen sense of humour. You might just learn a new way of seeing.


Barnaby Britton is Reviews Editor of dpreview.com. You can see a selection of his after-hours work at www.photoinsensitive.com.

Comments

Total comments: 24
nervus opticus
By nervus opticus (5 months ago)

(to be coninued)

Fieger, Erwin:
13 Photo-Essays.
Düsseldorf : Accidentia-Druck-und-Verlags-GmbH, 1969.
ISBN 3920005031

Twen : Revision einer Legende. hrsg. von Michael Koetzle.
München : Klinkhardt und Biermann, 1995.
ISBN 3781403920

Apparently no collector's items: price from Euro 3,00 upwards via ZVAB.com

There is a new publication on Saul Leiter, too - including his almost unknown fashion-photography and paintings (!) - from an exhibition in Hamburg, Germany

Saul Leiter - Retrospektive
Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg, Feb 2012
ISBN 9783868282580

- thank you for reading - pardon my englisch -

0 upvotes
nervus opticus
By nervus opticus (5 months ago)

First of all: Thank you, Barnaby Britton, for reviewing photographer's work as well as manufacturer's work. But considering a number of 2560 comments for a retro-styled 'New Beetle' in it's reincarnation as a DSLR - compared to these here now 23 comments in two years, it's quite disillusioning.
Saul Leiter surely was 'the' influential artist for a number of photographers and a magazine's Art Director in Germany during the 1960's to the 1970's. Erwin Fieger, Peter Cornelius and Fritz Fenzl should be mentioned here as photographers and by that time Will Fleckhaus was the Art Director of 'twen'-magazine commissioning and featuring their photographic work. There are some publications from that time, for instance:

Boje, Walter (Hg.)
Magie der Farbenphotographie.
Düsseldorf u. Wien Econ Verlag 1961

FIEGER, Erwin:
Farbiges London. Ein farbphotographisches Essay mit einem einführenden Text von Peter Grubbe.
Wien / Düsseldorf, Econ-Verlag, 1962

(to be continued on next comment)

0 upvotes
Alejandro del Pielago
By Alejandro del Pielago (5 months ago)

Speechless. Thank a lot for the note. One could behold those images a long time looking for answers and one can rejoice with new questions emerging from the same images.

0 upvotes
Sean65
By Sean65 (5 months ago)

Ah, sorry to hear this. I'm a big fan of photographers like Saul and Fred Herzog etc..

There's a great documentary about Saul. You can find it on youtube.

1 upvote
groenfeldt
By groenfeldt (Apr 13, 2013)

Saul Leiter is also included in the Milwaukee Art Museum's catalog-book "Street Seen: the Psychological Gesture in American Photography 1940-1959." Curated by Lisa Hostetler, who has gone on to the Smithsonian, this is a fascinating book linking street photography to the postwar culture and looking at the influences of Jackson Polloick Willem de Kooning and, in the case of Lisette Model, European painting and the Bauhaus. It is $80 or more on Amazon, but you can order it from the museum for $30 -- the remaindered copies, I guess.

0 upvotes
KevR
By KevR (Mar 30, 2012)

Purchased this book directly from the publisher - apparently back in print! Can highly recommend it. K

http://www.steidlville.com/

0 upvotes
Denys Finney
By Denys Finney (Sep 25, 2011)

Good review Barnaby, thanks for alerting us to this important artist. BTW love your work.

0 upvotes
Sanford
By Sanford (Sep 25, 2011)

Barney - sorry to say our last book store in the Monterey area of any significance has closed for good. Santa Cruz, CA has a big independent book store with a decent photography section last time I looked so maybe I will try there next trip.

0 upvotes
Barney Britton
By Barney Britton (Sep 25, 2011)

I've only been in Seattle a few months but already one of my favourite local bookshops has closed - very sad. Luckily I live nearby this place, which is well worth a visit if you're ever in town: http://www.elliottbaybook.com/

0 upvotes
Andrew Higgins
By Andrew Higgins (Sep 24, 2011)

Great to have photobook reviews here on DPR, and logical given the link with amazon...
I also find Leiter's work very interesting, reminiscent of William Eggleton's photographs I think.
The Photofile book is an excellent, and cheap, overview of his work.

Hope you do more book reviews in the future, proper photobooks, not 'How to take better sunset snaps'!

1 upvote
Barney Britton
By Barney Britton (Sep 24, 2011)

Just speaking for myself, I'm two books in to my library, and it's a very very big library - watch this space!

0 upvotes
design7
By design7 (Sep 24, 2011)

Fascinating work and a unique eye. Thanks dpreview for a great article on a fascinating artist!

2 upvotes
Ashley Pomeroy
By Ashley Pomeroy (Sep 23, 2011)

On a tangent, the ever-thinking Shorpy has a fairly extensive gallery of WWII-era colour 4x5 Kodachromes, which are almost universally stunning (albeit very different to Leiter's work, a lot more "epic"):
http://www.shorpy.com/image/tid/179

0 upvotes
James Loesch
By James Loesch (Sep 26, 2011)

Thanks for the tangent, Shorpy is a really cool site.

0 upvotes
Diopter
By Diopter (Sep 23, 2011)

it is a wonderful idea: reviewing the books important to the critic - not "new" to the printshop.

1 upvote
Ashley Pomeroy
By Ashley Pomeroy (Sep 23, 2011)

I agree. DPReview seems to be the only major photography equipment review site run by people who are actually interested in photography, as well as petty technical details.

There's Photo.net. but that swings too far the other way (an equivalent thread on Soul Leiter over there would be filled with "he was a mindless hack" or "colour photographs are a pathetic imitation of reality and are fit only for tourists" etc).

Go on, do Bob Carlos Clarke next. I remember reading - looking at - The Dark Summer at an impressionable age and kicking myself that I didn't buy a copy when it was still on sale.

1 upvote
swankFoto
By swankFoto (Sep 23, 2011)

So glad to see 'serious' photo books reviewed on a popular site like this.
Luckily I picked this up a few years ago at a B&N at list as well.
You might be able to find it cheaper than the $200 quoted as I'm sure that's for the first edition. There was a 2nd edition published in 2008 (also out of print) so should be cheaper on the second hand market.
Definitely a great addition to anyone's collection.

1 upvote
joblins
By joblins (Sep 23, 2011)

one of my favourite photographers, more pics here http://www.lensculture.com/leiter.html

1 upvote
Barney Britton
By Barney Britton (Sep 23, 2011)

Good find. I'll add this link into the review, many thanks.

0 upvotes
joblins
By joblins (Sep 23, 2011)

and these! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eLlmmJDhMEU

0 upvotes
winparkman
By winparkman (Sep 24, 2011)

Wow. I did not know this photographer and what a shame for me. I enjoyed that slide show. I also collect books and so I'll begin my hunt for this book.

0 upvotes
Sanford
By Sanford (Sep 23, 2011)

A photography book review without picture from the book? Ridiculous!

0 upvotes
Barney Britton
By Barney Britton (Sep 23, 2011)

As we produce more content of this sort we'd hope to be in a position to expand the amount of images we can give you. For now, if your interest is piqued, why not head to a bookshop, or a library, and see for yourself?

2 upvotes
mphillips12000
By mphillips12000 (Sep 23, 2011)

I had not heard of Saul Leiter's work prior to seeing an interview with Todd Haynes discussing his version of 'Mildred Pierce'; apparently Mr. Leiter's sense of color and framing was highly influential in Haynes' film adaptation.

1 upvote
Total comments: 24