JTF (just the facts): A total of 56 black and white photographs, framed in black and matted, and hung against grey walls in the main gallery space and the book alcove. All of the works are gelatin silver prints, made between 1947 and 1960. Physical sizes range from roughly 4×5 to 10×14 (or reverse). The show also includes a glass case with a selection of LIFE magazine spreads and a 1951 contest submission. A side viewing room contains 7 of Leiter’s painted photographs and a screen showing the film In No Great Hurry, while the small back gallery contains 8 of Leiter’s early color works (later prints). A two volume monograph of the early black and white work was recently published by Steidl (here) and Howard Greenberg Library. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: When we go back and examine a photographer’s early work, there is always that natural tendency to try and see the seeds of later successes, to retroactively search for signature visual formulas that later became important, looking for evidence of ideas germinating. Saul Leiter’s rediscovery began roughly a decade ago and has centered primarily on his pioneering color work from the 1950s, so the exuberant painterly use of color and the lyrical abstraction of the street are what we now know best about his artistic career. Beginning in the late 1940s, this show aims to fill in some of the gaps in our understanding of Leiter’s photography by digging back further into his early black and white work. What’s exciting is that this effort unearths some unexpected surprises, showing that Leiter clearly grasped the options that black and white and color offered him as an artist and adapted his picture making to the strengths of each medium.
Part of the reason Leiter’s color work is so successful lies in the smartness of its construction; the compositions are fluidly and often radically abstracted, cut into overlapping planes and reflections, allowing colors to play off each other in loose, improvisational ways. As seen in this show, his earlier black and white work also centers on construction and composition, but it does so in a more tightly controlled and more streamlined manner. Within the constraints of black and white, Leiter had to be more aware of contrast and shadow and as a result embraced alternate strategies to make his compositions energetic.
Isolated close-ups were one way to slow down the bustle of the street, capturing the intimate grace of small gestures (clasped hands, flowing hair tied back, a turned head, legs and stockings) by paying observant attention and singling out the overlooked. Leiter further expanded this technique into a clever series of worm’s eye views of shoes being shined (submitted to a 1951 LIFE contest), the dark weathered leather looming large and sculptural above the flat sidewalk.
But picking out details was the most straightforward of Leiter’s methods. Elegant faces were placed in shadow, playing with blur and reflection or pulled out through the interruption of foreground blocking. Skies were allowed to wash to pure white, turning street heads into dark black silhouettes, the curve of a bowler or the flutter of a fancy woman’s hat becoming bold cut outs. And the black cloth of suit pants or nuns’ habits became the vehicle for repeated formal exercises, where the contrast between legs and sidewalks provided the elements for a layered interplay of light and dark. For those looking for connections to Leiter’s more painterly side, there are wet window blurs, the fleeting motion of a subway car or a stolen kiss, and the perfectly timed interruption of a passing car antennae. The fact that all of these prints are different sized, having been trimmed or cropped to a particular dimensions, is further evidence that Leiter was paying very careful attention to how these images were composed and presented.
My major takeaway from this exhibit is that Leiter was consciously (and perhaps restlessly) experimenting in his early years, drawing on the traditions of New York-centric documentary and street photography but actively trying to recast them in his own ways. These early black and white pictures show him building up his visual vocabulary, banking away techniques that would later form the foundation for riskier and more flowing abstractions in color. But at their best, many of these images have a fluid, contemplative melody that is distinctively different from the stricter kinds of images his contemporaries were making in the streets. Black and white Leiter is less effervescent than color Leiter, but the roots of his later compositional buoyancy are definitely visible.
Collector’s POV: The black and white works in this show range in price from $18000 to $35000, with many already sold. Leiter’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.