The first commercially available color photographic process, Autochrome, was introduced in the United States in 1907. Alfred Stieglitz and George Seeley soon began experimenting with it, but it was not until the nineteen-fifties that color photography began to come into its own as an artistic medium, in the work of Ernst Haas, Helen Levitt, and others. This was the generation of the photographer Saul Leiter, the Pittsburgh-born son of a Talmudic scholar, who photographed the streets of New York City for six decades and died this week at the age of eighty-nine.
Leiter was perhaps the most interesting of the fifties color photographers in his use of form. His bold chromaticism, off-center composition, and frequent use of vertical framing attracted attention—the work reminded people of Japanese painting and Abstract Expressionism—and he was included in “Always the Young Strangers,” an exhibition curated by Edward Steichen at the Museum of Modern Art in 1953. But Leiter didn’t court fame, and though he continued to work, his photographs almost vanished from public view. Then they came back to light in 2006, with “Saul Leiter: Early Color,” a monograph published by Steidl. The book brought him belated recognition, gallery representation, a stream of publications, and a new generation of fans.
Color is in the mainstream of photographic practice now. It is essential to the inspired street work of Gueorgui Pinkhassov and Joel Meyerowitz, the large-format portraits of Rineke Dijkstra, the architectural views of Candida Höfer, the personal journalism of Nan Goldin, and the stately landscapes of Andreas Gursky. But for a long time, it was considered superficial and suspect. Henri Cartier-Bresson was firmly against it on the grounds that it interfered with formal priorities. John Szarkowski, the director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, dismissed most color photography before he began championing William Eggleston’s in the nineteen-seventies. This was the milieu—which, if not hostile, was not exactly encouraging—out of which Saul Leiter created a series of breathtaking, almost miraculous, photographs. He shot Kodachrome slides, and many of them were not printed until decades after they were exposed.
One of the most effective gestures in Leiter’s work is to have great fields of undifferentiated dark or light, an overhanging canopy, say, or a snow drift, interrupted by gashes of color. He returned again and again to a small constellation of subjects: mirrors and glass, shadows and silhouettes, reflection, blur, fog, rain, snow, doors, buses, cars, fedoras. He was a virtuoso of shallow depth of field: certain sections of some of the photographs look as if they have been applied with a quick brush. It will come as no surprise to a viewer of his work that Leiter was also a painter, that his heroes were Degas, Vuillard, and Bonnard, and that he knew the work of Rothko and de Kooning well. There are points of contact between his work and that of photographers like Louis Faurer and Robert Frank, the so-called New York School; but Leiter was an original. He loved beauty. To make a living, he photographed fashion spreads for Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, and the levity of his commercial work seeped into his personal work.
But the overriding emotion in his work is a stillness, tenderness, and grace that is at odds with the mad rush of New York street life. “In No Great Hurry,” the understated film made about Leiter last year by the filmmaker Tomas Leach, contains an exchange that gets to the core of Leiter’s practice. Late in the film, Leiter said, “There are the things that are out in the open and then there are the things that are hidden, and life has more to do, the real world has more to do with what is hidden, maybe. You think?” I loved this confirmation of Leiter’s loyalty to concealed realities, but loved even more his doubt, his interrogation of the hard-won insight. Leach, the filmmaker, replied off-camera, “That could be true.” Leiter then asked him, “You think it’s true?” “It could be,” Leach said. “It could be very true,” Leiter said, still not committing fully. “We like to pretend that what is public is what the real world is all about.”
Leiter’s best photographs lack all pretense, and are full of a productive doubt. When I heard the news of Leiter’s death, I asked Leach what the experience of working on the film—over a period of three years—had been like. “He was funny, intelligent, and insightful,” Leach wrote to me. “He was full of curiosity and mischief.” The Magnum photographer Alex Webb, who is celebrated for the sophistication of his color work, said Leiter had “an uncanny ability to pull complex situations out of everyday life, images that echo the abstraction of painting and yet, simultaneously, clearly depict the world.”
Undoubtedly, the charm of some of Leiter’s pictures lies in the fact that they depict fifties places, fifties cars, and fifties people (we rarely dress so well today), and that the analog reds and greens are more moving, somehow, than what our own digital cameras or streetscapes can offer up. But pictures such as “Through Boards” (1957), “Canopy” (1958), and “Walking With Soames” (1958) would be winners in any era. They are high points of lyric photography which, once seen, become—like all the best pictures and poems and paintings—a permanent part of our lives.
I asked the photographer Rebecca Norris Webb, whose own work is similarly concentrated and subtle, about Leiter. She praised his quietness, singling out the images taken through a window or some sort of glass: “some a delightful puzzle of reflections, and others softly aglow in the muted light of a storm, one of the few natural forces capable of slowing us New Yorkers down long enough to send us into a kind of reverie.”
The content of Saul Leiter’s photographs arrives on a sort of delay: it takes a moment after the first glance to know what the picture is about. You don’t so much see the image as let it dissolve into your consciousness, like a tablet in a glass of water. One of the difficulties of photography is that it is much better at being explicit than at being reticent. Precisely how the hypnotic and dreamlike feeling is achieved in Leiter’s work is a mystery, even to their creator. As he said in “In No Great Hurry,” laughing, “If I’d only known which ones would be very good and liked, I wouldn’t have had to do all the thousands of others.”