After some searching and some digging, I finally earned my copy of Saul Leiter’s posthumous new collection, Early Black and White.
It’s the follow up to Steidl’s popular (and delightful) Early Color monograph, which has gone through five editions since 2007. The Black and White series comes in two books, “Interior” and “Exterior.”
You can learn more about Leiter’s biography and style influences from Photo-Eye and Faded+Blurred, but suffice it to say that Leiter’s work, especially his color work, is a recent discovery in the art world. Now we get to see more of his monochromatic work.
The two-book package is nice. The slip cover is a little flimsy, but the books’ paper and quality and top-notch. Often I felt like the photos could’ve been a little larger – some of them scream to be printed 8×10″ on the page. But Early Black and White’s size matches that of Early Color, so at least it’s consistent.
Something I noticed: “Interior” doesn’t necessarily mean just photos that Leiter took indoors. No, “Interior” seems to represent Leiter’s relationships – inside his personal life, with family, friends, and kids. There are photos of relations on the streets, on walks and on rooftops.
Similarly, “Exterior” is outward-looking: strangers, city scenes, classic candid street photography. This is the classic Leiter we’re familiar with from his color work, with reflections, windows, and slanted glances of strangers throughout the book.
There are pieces of both books that I appreciate, but the “Exterior” edition recalls the Leiter that inspires me. There are a lot of photos in “Interior” that seem simple snapshots of friends at parties. I wouldn’t dare argue that these are outside of “art,” but they aren’t as moving. Sometimes they feel like filler.
There are exceptions. In many cases, Leiter makes art of of photos of friends and lovers, as above.
It’s the “Exterior” stuff that shows what Leiter can do, even if it’s not the color stuff that made him famous.
And on that, I will say that, while his monochrome work is delightful, you start to miss Leiter-in-color as you pour through each book. He makes the black and white tones do a lot of work, but they’re not as poetic as those early color photographs.
Leiter’s collection of work still surpasses most street photographers. His way of seeing the world is truly unique, and poetic, and over the course of several books his subject matter becomes truly his. Umbrellas, windows, weather, pedestrians – everyday stuff, illuminated.
Lately, I’ve devoured photography books from the masters, and out of all of those Leiter’s work (and perhaps William Eggleston’s) speaks to me the most.
I hope that these Early books are the just the beginning of the publication of Leiter’s work. The essayists hint that he always had a camera on him. It would be great to see how Leiter, through his camera lens, saw ‘80s, ’90s, and 2000s
A note on purchasing
It’s tough to figure out how to buy this book series. You can’t purchase it directly from Steidl’s website, and the Amazon listing is a series of third-party book sellers.
I found my copy through the Book Depository, a UK outfit, even though it’s perpetually out of stock. The site does offer a nice “email me when it’s in stock” option, though it took me a few tries to hit the “add to cart” button in time.
But the books arrived quickly and at a decent price, and delivery is free. So you may have some luck in finding a copy.