PDN Photo of the Day

Saul Leiter in Black-and-White

Much has been written to celebrate the life and remarkable color work of photographer Saul Leiter, who died this past November after spending most of his career in relative obscurity. But Leiter started his career shooting black-and-white in the 1940s, and his talent attracted the attention of Edward Steichen, who included a number of Leiter’s early black-and-white photos in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1953.

Leiter made his living as a fashion photographer—”one cannot say that I was successful, but there was enough work to keep me busy,” he told PDN in 2006. He continued to shoot personal work, mostly in color, but kept that work to himself and maintained a low profile. Then, in the 1993, a few of his early black-and-white images showed up again at a Corcoran Gallery of Art exhibition of New York School photography. Several years later, he walked into the Howard Greenberg gallery with bags full of his color slides.

Within a few years, Leiter was getting the attention he so much hoped to avoid. Steidl published two volumes of his color work in 2008: Saul Leiter and Saul Leiter: Early Color. Both books are now out of print, as are other collections of Leiter’s color work by different publishers. His black-and-white work has received less attention, but that may change with Steidl’s forthcoming release of Early Black and White.

Like Leiter’s color work, the black-and-white photographs collected in the new book capture quiet, contemplative moments amid the hustle and bustle of street life in the East Village neighborhood of New York City where the photographer spent most of his life. The book, edited by Max Kozloff and co-published by the Howard Greenberg Library, clearly demonstrates that Leiter’s work was informed by the documentary tradition, but reflects his highly personal esthetic and reactions to the city life around him. “Like a Magic Realist with a camera, Leiter absorbed the mystery of the city and poignant human experiences,” Steidl says in its promotional copy for the new book.

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