Saul Leiter: Early Black and White

UNTIL RECENTLY, Saul Leiter was rarely named among the first rank of photographers (Garry Winogrand, Helen Levitt, Weegee) who roamed New York’s streets recording the extraordinary ordinariness of life in the big city. When he died last fall at the age of eighty-nine, notice had just begun to be paid—exhibitions and books were followed by Tomas Leach’s well-received documentary, In No Great Hurry: 13 Lessons in Life with Saul Leiter. The photographer’s relative obscurity was owed, in part, to his inclinations—in the film, Leiter asks, “What makes anyone think that I’m any good? I’m not carried away by the greatness of Mr. Leiter.” But diffidence isn’t the whole story; his pictures don’t register the anecdotal tone that characterizes some of the most iconic street photography. Also, he usually worked in color, a medium that his peers regarded as more fit for advertisements. And finally, and perhaps most decisively, his subjects tend to be less obviously quirky, more inward, and this reflective turn is formally emphasized by the oblique points of view and blurred focus of his compositions.

Saul Leiter, Hands, ca. 1954, gelatin silver print, 11 x 14".

This volume collects Leiter’s early, black-and-white images, those more recognizably part of the street genre. But not quite: The figure in Begging, ca. 1952, has been shot through a building’s glass corner and isn’t at all legible as a person, let alone a beggar; a similar approach marks Boy, ca. 1960, which requires close study to spy out the subject, a child on a distant curb, neatly bisected by a car antenna in the foreground. A series titled “Shoes of the Shoeshine Man” features just that: the worker’s shoes rather than his customers. Leiter’s sense of urban drama doesn’t require fully characterized people and, in contrast to the work of other street photographers, is free from patent sociological import. His narrow-gauge focus attends to the implications of our perceptions rather than the narrative of human interaction. The man in Hands, ca. 1954 (above), is shot from the back and cropped headless—his hands, vivid and intricate against the monochromatic suit, are his only salient feature. Standing at the intersection of three rectangles, he might be another element constituting an essay in line and variations of black and white, except that those formal properties are made to serve as a mere stage for our attempt to puzzle out the minute action (a partial clasp—about to grow tighter or break free?) and meaning (idle, nervous, or devious?) of the hands. Within the moment and its small mystery, Leiter manipulates our viewing experience to spur questions about how and why we pay attention to what we do.