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Artful colour photography before colour photography was 'art',
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This review is from: Saul Leiter: Early Color (Hardcover)
Looking a Saul Leiter's astonishing photographs, so beautifully reproduced in this excellent collection, it is always a surprise to note the dates in the accompanying captions. This volume covers the period 1948-1960. The conventional wisdom is that colour photography only became fully accepted and exhibited as 'art' during the late nineteen-sixties and early nineteen-seventies. These stunning images make one aware of what a preposterous and narrow minded view that was. Leiter's training as a painter clearly gave him a deep understanding of the compositional importance of colour. He used that understanding to create images that took photography to the edge of abstraction and that display the same affinity for the beauty of the grids and lines of cityscapes as can be found in the work of abstract expressionist painters such as Mark Rothko or Agnes Martin.
Colour itself is as much the subject of these images as the people and scenes they so obliquely depict. The more you study these photographs, the more extraordinary they become - not least for the many paradoxes they contain. Often they look as if they have been snatched quickly. However, the composition and framing are always so meticulous as to contradict the snapshot aesthetic. The detail is often incredibly minimal and the colour extremely muted (see 'Foot on El', 1954). However, what detail there is is always hugely evocative, and despite the subdued colour, these images would not be as powerful in black and white. A friend I showed this book to remarked that one can almost taste and smell these scenes. And that is it in a nutshell. Whenever we experience an emotion it is always accompanied by a sensation, a texture, a sound, a scent, an angle of light - and this is psychological colour that taps into those emotional connections through our sensual memory.
Leiter seems to have been the consummate colour photographer. I am surprised that his work is not more celebrated. And I can't wait to get my hands on the partner volume, Early Black and White, due in March 2010.