My Favourite Books: Early Black And White by Saul Leiter
Ten years ago, I came across a photograph that someone had posted on social media. It was an abstract colour image of a New York Street. A black figure with a red umbrella passing a yellow car covered in snow. I literally held my breath. The image was sensitive and painterly. It was by a photographer I hadn't seen before, someone called Saul Leiter. I ordered his book 'Early Color' and instantly became a fan of his work. 'Early Color' is his best-known book, and a treat for the eyes. The photographs are of New York in the 1950s, and Leiter's frequent use of a telephoto lens, layers, and the colours he found on the streets, create an impressionistic feel to the images. I hadn't seen anything like it since Ernst Haas, and quickly decided that Leiter was, for me, the best colour street photographer ever to have lived. Then in 2014, something even more profound happened - Steidl published a book of his black-and-white photography.
Exterior is one of the finest books on black-and-white street photography ever published.
'Early Black and White' is actually two books wrapped in a dust jacket. The printing is exceptional from Steidl, and while these aren't big books, the publishers have included several pages which open out to reveal more images. Entitled I.Interior and II.Exterior, the books cover a period from the mid-1940s through the 1950s. The content is eclectic, with street scenes, nudes, portraits, family pictures, and even some wedding photographs. Leiter was clearly a photographer who liked to take pictures for himself. His colour pictures are undeniably beautiful, but it is his black- and-white work which shows his eye for light, shape and tone. In keeping with his colour work, Leiter's monochrome street photography (featured heavily in Exterior) uses shallow planes of focus, silhouettes and reflections. There is also a greater use of blur and movement which lends a pleasing abstract quality to his pictures. I would go as far as to say that Exterior is one of the finest books on black-and-white street photography ever published.
The family pictures, the portraits and nudes of Interior, show a different side to Leiter. While some of the images retain an impressionistic aesthetic, there is always a connection between the photographer and subject. Something we don't see in his street work. There are times when I feel as though I'm looking at a different photographer to the one that walked the streets of New York, but with the turn of a page, it's classic Leiter, particularly with his nude work. For me, Leiter represents everything I love about photography, a guy who shot for the hell of it, took risks with his work, and didn't really care what others thought. As much as I love his black-and-white work, I know that it isn't for everyone. They don't have the immediacy of his colour images. They need a little more time to get into. However, if you are really into black-and-white photography, street scenes, abstract imagery, and New York life in the 50s, and you can find a decent copy at a reasonable price, then allow yourself to revel in the work of one of the great master photographers of our time.