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.