Photobook Review | 05 April 2012

A question of boundaries

Leiter, Saul. (2006), Early Color, Third edition 2011, Steidl, Germany – See Images from the book below:

http://www.steidlville.com/books/145-Early-Color-Second-Edition.html

Looking at Early Color I was instantly drawn to one image, early in the book, ‘Dog in doorway, Paterson, 1952’. Its construction was so simple, but rather than being a chance shot it’s very carefully considered. Taken through a rear car window, seen as a hook of black framing the picture, it contains a shop front that looks like its been converted into a residence. The whiteness of the title dog pops out from a palette of muted greens, cast in the same flat American light used by the painter Edward Hopper.

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Dog in doorway

At it’s best street photography has the ability to show daily life, provoking a range of responses from the viewer, among them an appreciation of humour, honesty, beauty, or perhaps inspiring a sense of awe or even clarity. The photographs in Saul Leiters book are street photography, at least in the literal sense. As slices of time captured on of the streets of New York these pictures search for a semi-representational beauty in the everyday. There’s no doubt Leiter’s motivations are to create beauty and joyful images. He even stated this as his intent in 1959:

“I must admit that I am not a member of the ugly school. I have a great regard for certain notions of beauty even though to some it is an old fashioned idea. Some photographers think that by taking pictures of human misery, they are addressing a serious problem. I do not think that misery is more profound than happiness.”

Early Color gives the subject away through its title. It would a shame to pass by this innovative and surprisingly early collection of colour work, especially as it’s been rediscovered recently. (Leiter having been exhibited sporadically in the US until 2006, after which his photography began to be shown on an International level to much acclaim).

Personally I find two things particularly interesting about Leiter. Firstly, although having influential friends and contemporaries, he’s had a distinctive approach that clearly draws from his two reference points, painting and photography. This seems to be achieved without conflict. Secondly, as he embraced colour photography in its infancy, he was open to its anomalies and developed his own techniques.

Leiter’s work is very different to other American colour photographers, such as Stephen Shore, Joel Meyerowitz or William Eggelston, in its delivery. A pioneer of colour work his photography work was produced much earlier, between 1948 and 1960, so his links to photography are older. Leiter states Henri-Cartier Bresson as an influence and was also personally acquainted with Walker Evans, Robert Frank and Diane Arbus – who lived opposite him. As well as using black and white these photographers had a completely different approach to Leiter, their work being more literal, various kinds of documentary photography.

So where are Leiters roots? At the time of the first images in this book Leiter also exhibited abstract expressionist paintings alongside Willem De Kooning and Philip Guston. For someone who is now receiving so much acclaim for his photography it’s curious that Lieter still believes himself to be more of a painter than a photographer. Leiter also says he never felt a part of any school or movement. There is an argument for looking further into the relationship the photographs in Early Color have with painting. For example, while painters and photographers may take inspiration from an artist like Edward Hopper, look at ‘Dog in Doorway’ again and it seems very likely Leiter is one of them. There’s also a direct reference to Piet Mondrian in ‘Mondrian Worker, 1954’. An image which humorously draws a comparison between a Mondrian De Stijl painting and a workman hanging rectangular boards of different shades, as if the worker’s assembling one of these artworks. But the most striking parallel is the cover image to Early Color, ‘Through Boards, 1957’. This photograph has richness in construction and colour highly reminiscent of Mark Rothko’s late period which began ten years before. As a practicing painter working with abstract expressionists, Leiter would have been aware of all these artists and their work. Though the book seeks and explores subjects rich in colour, these could be represented on a sliding scale, at one end realism (Postmen, 1952), and at the other abstraction (Walk with Soames, 1958). His work deftly negotiates both, never fully committing to either.

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Walk with Soames

The images in Early Color also have many signatures that create ambiguity. For example exteriors shot through glass misted with condensation, street scenes taken through gaps in boards or under awnings and fragments of type from shop fronts or advertising. Even Leiter’s figures are often obscured by shadows or reflection, out of focus or shot from angles that force people into a generic form. This refuses any direct empathy between the viewer and the subject as an individual. The character of his images is instead created by colour, evocative and rich, even when the palette is minimal. Leiter also uses techniques that apply further degrees of ambiguity, resulting in something greater than the sum of its parts. Again and again he also layers the abstracted colours and shapes he creates to pull a new order and unity in these photographs, for example on the lead image ‘Phone Call, 1957’. Leiter has a command of colour, using it in various ways; muted, complimentary, bright or contrasting with rich and varied results. It’s interesting that in considering himself as a painter he was able to embrace chance and avoid the constraints of conventional practice. He uses emerging colour technology without fear of losing control of the outcome, as in its early years colour-processing results were unpredictable. Leiter also encouraged mutation by seeking out expired film stock to use for shooting.

There’s no doubt to define the boundaries of a good ‘street photograph’ is problematic. An approach that succeeds capturing one type of image is often not going to work on another. This is something that Leiter’s work illustrates. If a photographer or artist defines themselves in those terms only, surely this must constrain some of their creativity? ‘If I am a photographer, must all my influences be photographic?’

Robert Adams claims in his book Beauty in Photography, “For a picture to be beautiful it does not have to be shocking, but it must in some significant respect be unlike what has preceded it, (this is why an artist cannot afford to be ignorant of the tradition within his medium)”. Looking at Leiter’s pictures, I don’t know of anything similar that preceded them. As his work has only recently reached acclaim I don’t yet know anything that bears their influence, though I’m sure this will happen. Regarding ‘tradition within his medium’, this is only part of the argument, as Leiter’s work illustrates. There’s no doubt that Leiter has knowledge of photographic arts, at the very least through his photographic peers. He is also a photographer, as he takes pictures. Yet he also draws frequently on visual influence outside his chosen medium, looking to his roots in fine art. This may well be what makes this book so compelling. His work comfortably straddles between painting and photography, through it Leiter has caught the daily beauty of a city.

Bibiography:

Leiter, Saul. (2006), Early Color, Third edition 2011, Steidl, Germany

Adams, Robert. (1996) Beauty In Photography, Aperture Foundation, New York.

Adams, Robert. (1994) Why People Photograph, Aperture Foundation, New York.

Howarth, Sophie & McLaren, Stephen, (2010). Street Photography Now, Thames and Hudson, London.

Postmen, 1952

Walk with Soames, 1958