Friday, March 21, 2008

Three books on Saul Leiter

Making art does not always seem suited for people who wish to be left alone. A majority of artists produce work that they wish to be seen at some point usually, hopefully, while they are still alive. It seems to be the case today that -- hiding closely behind the impetus of having something to say and creating the work that says it, is also, for some, a need for the attention that the work may bring to soothe the ego. Saul Leiter is an artist of the rarer sort who has worked quietly for 60 years and has taken steps to avoid the spotlight.

Leiter has been a painter since the early 1940s who, after visiting the Henri Cartier Bresson exhibition at the Museum of modern Art in 1947, decided to pursue photography seriously. After exchanging a few W. Eugene Smith prints for a Leica camera, he started making black-and-white photographs around his neighborhood in New York City. Within just a few years Leiter was exhibiting in group shows at the Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo but he also made decisions like not to submit photographs for the Family of Man exhibition even after being invited to by Steichen. Unlike many photographers who work hard and then become embittered if they are ignored, Leiter found some early public success but seems to have become less interested in sharing the work to larger audiences and just wished to continue working in solitude.

What set Leiter apart from most of his contemporaries that were mining similar territory within everyday life on the streets of New York was his use of color as early as 1948. Where many photographers were using black-and-white film and choosing an aggressive confrontation with their subjects, Leiter seemed more like a spy or private detective taking notes and wishing to go unnoticed. It does not seem that he is doing so out of a sense of timidity but, rather to do unto others as he wished done unto himself -- be left alone. His compulsion to observe beauty is what drew him into the lives of others on the street but there is no sense that he wished any more contact with them beyond making his photographic notes. This becomes clear when given the chance to look through a substantial amount of his work. Leiter takes his notes when his subjects often have barriers between where they stand and his camera or he sandwiches them within reflections of store windows, mirrors, or car windows. Other times he chooses vantage points from above or behind his subjects where minor body language and gesture take on a larger meaning that carries the weight of the photograph. Leiter's color palette is one of muted tonalities that convey a sense of age. Most likely partly due to the instability of the dyes in the materials he used, the photographs "read" as belonging to another era and flirt with, but avoids falling into, sentimentality and nostalgia.

In 2006, Steidl published Saul Leiter Early Color a collection of 79 images from the late 1940s to the early 1960s. This elegant book, modest in size, has quickly become a collector's item as it rapidly sold completely out. This was a long awaited title for those of us familiar with Jane Livingston's The New York School: Photographs 1936-1963 book and exhibition which, in the early 1990s, was partly responsible for Saul's name as a photographer to reemerge into public view after decades of silence. A second exhibition one year later at the Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York confirmed Leiter as one of the major overlooked talents of his generation. I was pleasantly surprised to find that this quiet artist has found an audience so appreciative of his work.

2007 saw the release of Photo Poche number 113 which is dedicated to an overview of Leiter's work. In keeping with the standard format of the Photo Poche series, this features a mix of 64 black-and-white and color images. Interestingly this title includes a few intimate photographs of women that hint at Leiter's personal relationships. These black-and-white photographs, often nudes, are at times shot employing the same strategy of the street photographs with oblique framing that achieves a voyeuristic tone.

Unfortunately the quality generally achieved in these little books does not lend itself to the subtlety of an artist like Leiter's tonalities. In comparison to the book mentioned above, several of these plates are over-corrected in their color balance and drain some of the character of the originals.

This year sees another collection of Leiter’s work, this time published on the occasion of an exhibition at the foundation Henri Cartier-Bresson in Paris on view until April 13. Co-published with Steidl, this book is the largest offering of Saul Leiter’s work with 106 black-and-white and color photographs. Also modestly sized but slightly taller than Early Color, this book is beautifully printed and designed. What makes both of these titles additionally appealing is in their handling of the photographs in terms of scale. Both reproduce the images approximately 4” x 6” and surrounded by large white margins. This creates clear definition of the borders of the images and adds to the sense of their individuality.

I have heard that this book, like Early Color, is already selling so rapidly that it is difficult to find in certain places. According to the Steidlville website it is already SOLD OUT!

I love the idea that work of this nature is so popular but I am also somewhat distressed at the idea that these books may become collector’s items and thus less readily available in the future. That would be the ultimate irony, if the attention that Leiter avoided during his career, would now be the element which pushes his work back into obscurity.

Book Available Here (Early Color)