Catching Hold of the Devious City

Books and films drawn on for this review

Saul Leiter: Early Black and White

with essays by Max Kozloff and Jane Livingston
Steidl/Howard Greenberg Library, two volumes, 388 pp., $90.00 (to be available in the US in August)

In No Great Hurry: 13 Lessons in Life with Saul Leiter

a documentary film by Tomas Leach

Saul Leiter: Early Color

with an introduction by Martin Harrison
Steidl, 176 pp., $50.00 (to be available in the US in August)

Saul Leiter: Retrospektive

edited by Ingo Taubhorn and Brigitte Woischnik, with essays by Adam Harrison Levy, Vince Aletti, Margit Erb, and others
Berlin: Kehrer, 294 pp., $65.00
Saul Leiter Foundation/Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York
Saul Leiter: Red Umbrella, circa 1955

New York street photographers were among the great flaneurs of the twentieth century. These weaponized observers with their loaded metal boxes (so much more conspicuous than reporters with their pocket-sized notebooks) did their most striking work in the 1940s and 1950s.

One thinks of Helen Levitt’s image, from 1940, of a man on a Sahara-like expanse of New York City asphalt, pulling tight his overcoat while twisting down toward his leg as if to locate and wipe off a stain. Levitt maintains an unobtrusive distance from the man, who is all shape and gesture, the shrouded, faceless inhabitant of his clothes. There’s a hint of the Surrealists in his aloneness—“the tensions and desolations of creatures in naked space,” James Agee wrote of Levitt’s work. But what Levitt is after is not a distorted or fantasy city but the city that is, with (in Agee’s fine phrase) its “ordinary metropolitan soil.”

There’s an analogous feeling in Robert Frank’s photograph entitled On Saturday and Sunday the street is empty. Georgie is alone (1951). Georgie is a four- or five-year-old boy, in the foreground of a long peopleless street that appears to stretch in a narrowing ribbon all the way to the end of the metropolis. The boy is anything but faceless, however—he looks at the camera with frank curiosity, a solid little figure, more intelligent than vulnerable, his bare arms, still thick with baby fat, hanging by his sides.

A similar aura emanates from the work of at least half a dozen other New York photographers of the time. Some of their images are vaguer, grainier, more abstract, but the sensibilities of these flaneurs seemed to spill into one another, as if they were guided by an overarching psychological affinity, a shared state of mind. Part of it is their use of 35mm film, with its stark areas of abysmal darkness and exploding light. But it is also the particular way they approached the city, catching it in a kind of out-of-time motion, with no staging, no agenda, so that looking at their work today one senses a single, concentrated project. Theirs seemed to be the perfect expression of the in-the-moment rush that the Beats tried to get, with much poorer results, in their writing.

In 1992, the curator Jane Livingston published a book called The New York School: Photographs, 1936–1963. Livingston included sixteen photographers in her group, spanning two generations: from Alexey Brodovitch, born in 1898 in Russia, to Don Donaghy, born in Philadelphia in 1936.1 They weren’t photojournalists; they didn’t shoot still lifes or manipulate light other than what the moment gave them; they rejected the “socially concerned ‘do-gooding’ photography” of the 1930s; yet they openly used the techniques of all these styles.

Robert Capa’s astonishing photographs of the Spanish civil war and of the…

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