‘I simply looked at the world, not prepared for anything.’ Saul Leiter (1923-2013)
© Saul Leiter / Five and dime / 1950
I have mixed feelings about Saul Leiter’s black and white work. Some of it I love, especially the images taken through glass. But I have to admit – reluctantly – that a lot of his black and white photos leave me cold. That isn’t his fault and he probably wouldn’t care – but more of that later.
© Saul Leiter / Three Ladies / c.1948
I stumbled on ‘Saul Leiter : Early Black and White’ in a bookshop in London’s Charing Cross Road. Published jointly by Steidl and the Howard Greenberg Library in 2014, it comes in two volumes: the first is called ‘Interior’, the second ‘Exterior’. The design and production values are superb. Each book is 21 centimetres square and includes 100 images. And that is where I start to fall out of love with them. The editing feels too loose to me. Guided by the principle that less is more, I would probably have chosen a total of 100 images and published them in one volume.
Were the publishers hoping to cash in on Leiter’s reputation, following the huge success of ‘Early Color’ in 2006? I don’t think so. His ‘day job’ was fashion photography. His first love was painting. And throughout his life, he appears to have been a creative maverick, not caring greatly what others thought of him. In many ways ‘Early Black and White’ reflects that maverick streak, including creative experiments that didn’t always work. As an insight into the development of a photographer, the book is fascinating. But for me there are too many casual, personal shots, which don’t hold my attention.
We can’t ask Saul Leiter what he thinks. He died the year before ‘Early Black and White’ came out. Like the curate’s egg, I feel that the book is good in parts, but if you disagree please speak out.
© Saul Leiter / Marianne / c.1947