At the risk of sounding simplistic, as a photographer Saul Leiter specialised in two things: photographing the world through the aesthetics of reflections, window distortions and natural framing; and exploiting the chromatic distortion of out of date colour film. Turning the pages of this little square book, Early Color, one is struck by Leiter's determination to render the photograph into a pastoral impression, sometimes to the point where street furniture and people merge into one soft blur. It would be fair to say that Leiter pursued the aesthetic ideal without any political or social agenda. In many of his shots you would have difficulty even fixing the country or the decade without the accompanying caption.
Just like Cartier-Bresson or Lartigue, Leiter began as a painter, using photography first as a sketch book, then later as an art form in itself. Unlike his peers he worked in colour, welcomed aberration and abstraction and paradoxically improved his composition with imperfections.
He was interested in the relationships of colour and shape, to the point that people or identifiable objects could be dispensed with. In 'T 1950' or 'Street Scene, New York 1958', for example, it's difficult to discern anyone or anything in particular, and one is left only with a vague sense of being in a street. This was revolutionary at a time when colour photography (or indeed black and white photography) was considered useful merely as a means of documenting events and factual information.
Leiter was interested in how a person interacts with their world. I hesitate to use the word 'people' because in the majority of his photographs there is only one person. He uses natural framing and colour to isolate that person brilliantly, holding them outside time, giving the illusion that the image seems neither fixed nor fluid. For example, in 'Bus, New York 1953', the snatched view of a silhouetted man reading on a bus seems forever fleeting - so that next time we look he may be gone, hurried away to his destination, leaving the page empty. In 'Phone Call 1957', the window of a busy telephone booth reflects a tram, tricking us at first glance into locating a telephone caller on the bus. In this image particularly, the bus and the man seem to defy stillness and we almost fear the collapse of a juxtaposition of elements even as we look, the tram moving swiftly onward, the man hanging up and walking out. Finally, consider 'Waiter, Paris 1959', a brilliant exposition of the essence of a waiter. Amid the bustle, clatter, and cigarette smoke, this elderly waiter pauses in a rare moment of calm - he is weary and wistful, yet infinitely patient, even as a crass customer calls for attention.
Leiter was never afraid to leave large areas of the image monochrome, interrupt our view with stark foreground or reduce the elements of his pictures to zen-like minimalism. Take for example, 'Tanager Stairs 1954', where a man's neck and hand are caught in the upper frame of a shot taken over almost entirely by the stairs of an escalator, or 'Red Umbrella 1957', a snowy street, empty except for half an umbrella exiting the picture on the right.
Finally, I want to mention two astonishingly beautiful portraits near the end of the book, both apparently of a woman called Soames, to whom Leiter dedicated the book. In the first photograph, 'Lanesville 1958', she is reclining naked in the shadows of what might be a porch, while behind her, through the screens, we see a parched lawn in high summer and the blur of a truck. It's an intimate and touching portrait, well placed at the end of the book close to Leiter's dedication. The second portrait is the last photograph of the book. 'Soames, England 1971' depicts a youthful woman in a fur coat, playfully reclining under a tree with a puppy in her arms. Only in these images does Leiter permit any semblance of sentimentality to enter his art.
Early Color is a book not to be missed. Although Steidl assert it is in second edition, by all accounts it's identical to the first edition, which attracted silly prices on the secondary market not so long ago. Prices are rising again, so if you want this book act quickly!