Review: Early Color

6550Early Color
Saul Leiter, Martin Harrison
156 pages
Published 2008

From Goodreads: This is a reprint of the immensely successful Early Color (2008), which presented Saul Leiter’s remarkable body of color work to the public for the first time in book form. Although Edward Steichen had exhibited some of Leiter’s color photography at The Museum of Modern Art in 1953, it remained virtually unknown to the world thereafter. Leiter moved to New York in 1946 to become a painter, but through his friendship with Richard Pousette-Dart he quickly recognized the creative potential of photography. Leiter continued to paint, exhibiting with Philip Guston and Willem de Kooning, but the camera remained his ever-present means of recording life in the metropolis. None of Leiter’s contemporaries, with the partial exception of Helen Levitt, assembled a comparable body of work: subtle, often abstract compositions of lyrical, eloquent color.

Photography is a strange art form. Lens manufacturers spend millions of dollars on research and design to make their lenses ever sharper and with fewer distortions. When shopping for cameras, people endlessly search for newer, snappier gear that gives them crystal clarity, and yet the art of photography does not depend on the latest and greatest lens or sensor.

Great photographs- the ones that make us pause in the midst of our daily lives and stare- depend not upon the gear they are made with, but on the basic principles of design: line, shape, value, texture, color, form, and space. If those elements are in harmony with each other, then you’re bound to have a good photograph whether you shot it with a $15,000 Hasselblad or a $40 Barbie camera. Composition is king, and sharpness is only a servant. One that you can afford give a few days off now and then.

Saul Leiter’s work is an example of this notion. His photographs are studies in form and color, revealing an eye exquisitely attuned to detail and the ability to spot the perfect, fleeting image in the hustle and bustle of a busy city. In his brief biography of Leiter, found at the beginning of Early Color, Martin Harrison writes about how Leiter came to New York with the intention of becoming a painter (which he did, showing his work alongside painters like Willem de Kooning). This background shows in Leiter’s photographic works, which are often abstract and reduce figures to mere shapes and colors in constant motion against the ever-changing backdrop of the city itself.

And while ‘abstract photography’ might seem like a negation of the point of ‘capturing the moment’, in Leiter’s hands this abstraction takes a moment from a specific point in a specific time and makes it universal. How often do we hurry through the day and not think about the glimpse we caught of a shopper through a foggy window or fail to take note of the brilliant red umbrella against the rainy gray city? If we look- really look, stop hurrying and give ourselves a minute to breathe and really study something instead of looking at our phones for a new notification- then we might see something extraordinary in a photograph that inspires us to look up and take note of the beauty in our own lives.


Saul Leiter- Shopper, 1953


Saul Leiter- Parade 1954

2 thoughts on “Review: Early Color

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