Here’s the one time I met Saul Leiter. It was a couple years before his death, he was signing a new book at his gallery on East 57th St. There was this jolly, smiling, army-and-navy-surplus-store-dressed old guy, rings of silver hair circling his face, sitting at a table with a pen and an array of rubber stamps and ink pads. (My first decade in NYC I had a place around the corner from where Leiter lived for fifty-plus years; on my block there is still a custom rubber stamp store, run by another silver-haired East Village gent, most likely where Leiter got his own stamps.)
I put Leiter’s new book in front of him, told him how much his work meant to me. The book was Kehrer’s Saul Leiter Retrospektive, and when he first signed it, he did so on the page that already had a printed signature, so it simply looked as if his signature had been printed twice. I asked him if he could sign the title page, and he obliged, with gusto. I got the second signature, then with a gleeful grin he started stamping like crazy with his little rubber stamps. Along with a huge red heart, there are two bold blue “HELP!”s, a red “IT’S NOT MY FAULT,” and a red circle and a black circle, both with SL inside it. (See photo below.)
I shook his hand. He beamed.
So there was Saul Leiter, eighty-nine years old, full of joy, mischief, and life. A year later he was dead.
I go on at such length about this meeting because it’s an essential joy, mischief, and life that comes through in virtually every one of Leiter’s photographs, which makes each new shot from his archives that sees print such a notable occasion. Which makes the latest release from the Gould Collection such an important book.
It Don’t Mean a Thing gives us dozens of heretofore unseen Leiter images, many as good as the indelible classics we all know, combined with a short story by the eminent New York City author Paul Auster. (This is the Gould Collection’s second book. Their mission is to combine the photobook with short fiction, and they’re accomplishing that far better than I ever thought it could be done.) One simple aspect that makes these books work is that the photographs are printed on full sheets of white luster paper, while the short fiction is on a gray textured stock that ends an inch and an eighth (less than three centimeters) short of the larger paper. So It Don’t Mean a Thing is primarily a photobook; that is, the printed words at the least don’t get in the way, as they do in so many mixed-media projects.
As more and more Leiter shots see public light, we learn ever more things about him: his strong black-and-white work; his deep interest in nudes; his continuing magic with color. All these qualities (except nudes) are resplendent in It Don’t Mean a Thing. Personally, I like his color work best, and there are photos here not unfamiliar in style to those in Steidl’s transformative Early Color. There are snow shots, mirror shots, window-reflection shots, even one of those wonderful Toulouse Lautrec–like faded-café shots. The astonishment? These are not B photos compared with those in Early Color. Most are at least as good; some better.
And what a great color photographer Leiter is. Among other things, he reinvented Impressionism for the mid–20th century, finding a way to uncrisp lines, blur figures, float wonderful clouds of color all in service of truths and emotions far greater than the realistic representations a lens usually captures. And he was doing much of his best work in the 1950s, when color photography could barely be imagined as actual art. (To Leiter’s credit, he turned down an invitation to Steichen’s dreary “Family of Man” 1955 MOMA show and book.)
The pairing up with Auster in It Don’t Mean a Thing is inspired, not only because some consider Auster an important New York City novelist, but also because his story in the book is somewhat Impressionistic, a not uncharming (if very slight) tale of coincidence comprised of a Matisse scholar, an indigent poet, first readings of Le Petit Prince, a wildly enthusiastic recital of the Ellington classic “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” by the narrator’s daughter (lending the book its title), and a building on Central Park South. Written by Auster in 2000, the story complements Leiter’s pictures, as an aura of decades-ago New York City rises from the words and subtly backlights the photos.
Now back to the photos.
There are some somewhat conventional black-and-white street shots that Walker Evans or Louis Faurer did better, and one shot taken near ground level on a NYC street, a man’s suit legs taking up the foreground, a woman looking into her purse the main subject, other women blurring by that that has a distinct William Klein vibe—though since it’s dated only “1950s,” there’s no telling who came up with that type of shot first. (My money’s on a tie, since both Leiter and Klein always seem to beat to his own drum.)
Even the shots in It Don’t Mean a Thing that can only be Leiter’s—a spread on pages 32 and 33, for instance—push our ideas of his work further. Page 32 is a 1950s shot of Times Square, one of those Leiter complex mirror/window deals, though this one piles up the crowd thicker and more abstract than shots in Early Color. Likewise the next photo, another snowy street with a red and green traffic light (the colors more muted than usual in Leiter), but this shot is nearly half blacked-out by a blurry man in a hat walking by, simply a dark shadow over the already blue and melancholy winter street. This photo is also not as crisp as the well-known winter ones in Early Color, where the snow is more fun as it falls on postmen, or more simply a backdrop as it is in “Red Umbrella,” the white to the umbrella’s frame-leaving pop of color.
There are shots in the book new for Leiter’s work, at least to me. Curiously, I see a photo or two here much like ones I’ve taken walking around NYC, shots that made sense for me to take … and now I see that Leiter was thinking similarly sixty years earlier. For instance, there’s a photo of the reflection of tall city buildings off the trunk of a shiny automobile. I took a couple like that just a few months back.
Likewise new to me in Leiter’s work are black-and-white weather shots (the weather ones I know are in Early Color) and some very emotional black-and-white street shots. On the cover of It Don’t Mean a Thing is a photo of his longtime companion Soames Bantry, but it’s clearly not a studied portrait as so many in Early Black and White are. Here we have a woman sitting on a street-side bench, mouth pressed up into a raised fist, looking at best contemplative, at worse concerned or deeply troubled. It’s a powerful picture of anyone, even if not a loved one; but that it’s Leiter’s mate makes it even more intriguing.
Leiter has always drawn powerful emotion from his shots of friends and lovers, just as he can wring stirring emotions out of casual street scenes. More than most photographers other than William Eggleston, the power of Leiter’s work is in his use of color, like Matisse or Rothko or even Mondrian, whom Leiter imitated in a shot or two. As with the artists above, Leiter’s work is all about feeling, and in It Don’t Mean a Thing every picture new to us (a small percentage are from earlier books) takes us on a new artistic journey.
Which is not to say that It Don’t Mean a Thing makes us reevaluate Leiter in any major way, just that it makes clear that the depths of his singular vision and photographic art have not yet been fully known or enjoyed. And for that, the new book is essential and a true delight … and we hope a taste of further joy, mischief, and life to come.
It Don’t Mean A Thing can be purchased here.
Robert Dunn is a writer, photographer, and teacher. His latest novel is Savage Joy, inspired by his first years in NYC and working at The New Yorker magazine. His photobooks OWS, Angel Parade, and Carnival of Souls are in the permanent collection of the International Center of Photography (more info on Dunn’s own photobooks here; prints of his work can be ordered here). In Spring 2017, Dunn taught a course called “Writing the Photobook” at New School University in New York City.