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 D-Day invasion in 1944 had demonstrated that the imperfections of grain and blur could convey a surge of urgency rather than being hallmarks of a “bad picture.” These became essential elements for almost all of the New York photographers. William Klein’s image Big Blow Up, Grainy Woman’s Face (1955) takes this to an extreme, turning the viewer into a nearly blind person capable of distinguishing only the broadest aspects of light and darkness.
Sid Grossman, an influential photographer and teacher, and one of the older members of Livingston’s group, remarked that “what is characteristic of all bad photography is the fact that the photograph itself is at most as good as life itself, as the object itself.” He told his students that “the function of the photographer…is…to come back with the revelation of new and important facts.” To be a photographer, Grossman believed, you had to “change your positions” and take on “a completely new attitude toward the people you are dealing with, toward everything you do in this world.”
Grossman was forty-two when he died, in 1955. He had been a Communist, was hounded by the government during McCarthyism, and forced out of the Photo League that he had cofounded in 1936.2 But the images he is remembered for—Coney Island frolickers humming with an almost fearsome vitality, bursting visions of the San Gennaro street fair in Little Italy, and his picture of a young girl, in Panama, in a disturbing agony of laughter that he took while stationed there for the US Army in 1945—had nothing directly to say about politics or the conditions of the working class. In 1949, he spoke of photography as “an act of living, [not] a search for something interesting, for something that is more or less sensational, something that is different.” This “act of living” was what made taking pictures a personal endeavor.
Henri Cartier-Bresson also used the phrase in the introduction to his book The Decisive Moment, published in 1952:
I believe that through the act of living, the discovery of oneself is made concurrently with the discovery of the world around us…. A balance must be established between these two worlds—the one inside us and the one outside us. As a result of a constant reciprocal process, both these worlds come to form a single one. And it is this world that we must communicate.
The passage became a kind of aesthetic manifesto, but in 1952 it was a common idea. The search for a balance between what’s inside and what’s outside, between reality and imagination, between one’s particular consciousness—with its experiences, associations, and memories that come to bear on the way each of us sees and feels at every instant—and the hard fact of what objectively is, is one of the fundamental struggles of all human beings. To meld them into a single world and to communicate that world has been the business of the artist for at least a thousand years.
What was new was Cartier-Bresson’s application of this idea to photography, and his implicit elevation of it to an art form equal to literature or painting. The notion that the camera was an “instrument of detection,” as Lisette Model put it, “the instrument I am asking a question with,” and that the photographer could project herself into a subject in an instant of heightened intuition (the picture “that springs from life,” in Cartier-Bresson’s words), was at the center of how the New York photographers went about their craft.
By 1960, most of them had stopped taking black-and-white street pictures because they believed it had become a cliché. Found movement and gestures, blurred revelations, grotesqueries and unexpected shapes, seemed to leave room only for repetition. A mere twenty years later, the flaring light and haloes that were integral to the look of those photographs had become, from a technical point of view, almost impossible to achieve.
Sid Kaplan, who printed Robert Frank’s photographs beginning in the 1960s, told an interviewer in 1985 that you couldn’t get that light any longer because the new lenses are “super-coated and multi-coated.” Kaplan explained:
Shooting today with the new equipment you could go out and get a lens that’s thirty years old, but another thing is the film. They’ve refined the film so much with all these super good anti-halation backings that even if you get one of those lenses, they’ve corrected the film so the light would never flair out.
The subjective photographic style of the so-called New York School has gone from being a cliché to being inimitable.
At the time that Livingston’s book was published, Saul Leiter was probably the least known of the sixteen photographers in her group. He was also the most unlike the others. Livingston offers a sampling of his black-and-white pictures, but during that same period he was the only one working with color, and it is in color that we recognize his genius.
Leiter began photographing with Kodachrome and Ansochrome film in the late 1940s. At the time, Kodachrome was determinedly lowbrow, associated with vacation and suburban barbecue snapshots. Otherwise, color was the province of Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, and a handful of other magazines that could afford to pay for the dye-transfer process, the only way to make quality prints out of transparencies or slides. Color was for prettifying clothes and jewelry, not for art.3
As late as 1969 Walker Evans was calling color “vulgar.” He scrupulously muted the hues in his own occasional forays into color, so as not, in his words, to “[blow] you down with…a bebop of electric blues, furious reds, and poison greens.” Cartier-Bresson, for his part, objected to color because it added what he considered to be an unnecessarily complicating element to photography—the ineffable moment of a great image might be upon you and the colors would be at war. The prevailing belief was that it corrupted the pure juxtaposition of darkness and light of monochrome film.
What was perhaps most objectionable about color to many of the New York street photographers of the 1950s was that, by emphasizing the mechanistic nature of taking pictures, it threatened to diminish the photographer’s psychological presence in the image. This wasn’t technically true, of course—color and black-and-white are equally beholden to the machine in hand. But it seemed to introduce an element of falseness, separating both the viewer and the photographer from the image, the very condition that the New York photographers strove to transcend.
Leiter photographed through windows, through rain, under awnings and canopies, and through the spaces between construction site boards to create (or more accurately, to show) a mystery of activity and simultaneous perspectives. Often his subject seems to be color and light itself. His pictures can be looked at as abstractions, but they never deviate too far from what is recognizably real. A blooming red umbrella materializes behind a yellow taxi in a storm; three Rothko-like panels of darkness frame an ordinary street scene with window-shoppers, walking pedestrians, and a passing white car. They seem to be instructing us in a new way to take in the city.
Leiter’s color photography offers its own version of chance: an attunement to the visual masterpieces that can be found in almost every urban instant. The endless, accidental rearrangement of these images belongs not to the world we understand or think about, but the world we perceive. They are fleeting, ephemeral, either missed or, just as likely, forgotten. Of all the types of memory that we possess, sensory memory is the briefest. A flash of sunlight, the blinking of a traffic signal, a passing train, a tree glimpsed among thousands of trees—most sensory experiences disappear without a trace, present time spooling mercifully away. Leiter rediscovers for us this unspooling world. He shows us what we are unable to retain, if we ever fully saw it at all.
His colors almost always possess a blended, continuous quality. Yet he rarely cropped his prints or interfered with the developing process beyond bringing up contrasts; when you compare his prints to his negatives, the borders of the images are the same. Occasionally he shot with Kodachrome that had passed its sell-by date, in order to get a washed or scrubbed look. Certainly his photographs were devoid of Walker Evans’s dreaded “electric blues” or “poison greens.”
Helen Levitt began using color in the 1960s, because she thought she could be “closer to reality if I got the color of the streets.” In one of her color photographs you will see a sky-blue bathing suit on an otherwise naked man, in another, graffiti on a wall behind a cluster of children. But these splashes of color don’t substantially alter the way you experience her work; her black-and-white images have a similar feeling.
On the other hand, I can’t imagine Leiter’s color photographs existing in any other form. Most of his black-and-white exteriors have a remarkably different quality: nuns in full black billowing habits photographed from behind; shoes, hats, furs, and other objects imbued with the character of the people who own them; an idle wooden cart. There is, above all, an ambiguity in Leiter’s color images. He rarely focused on a single object, but on a concatenation of objects and people, the viewer’s focal point constantly shifting, the pictures themselves filled with refractions through dirty bus or taxi or café windows with their accreted slashes and smears.
He stands apart from his contemporaries in the way he seemed to let his photographs seep toward him. You almost never get the sense that he has muscled his images into being. He didn’t go out in search of suitable subjects, such as circus performers (as Ted Croner did) or gang members (Bruce Davidson) or ballet dancers (Alexey Brodovitch) or Coney Island physiques (Sid Grossman). His photographs are the embodiment of the oblique, the peripheral, the ricochet. His disorienting reflections and complicated visual parentheses keep you peering at his images the way you might linger on a poem, wondering where the camera is placed, where Leiter is standing, whether he actually perceived the vague narrative suggestion in the far corner of the print.
Ambiguity appeared to be a central aspect of his character as well as his work. In 2013, the filmmaker Tomas Leach released a documentary about Leiter, In No Great Hurry. The entire film takes place in Leiter’s New York apartment and on the streets immediately surrounding it. On the screen we are introduced to an eighty-seven-year-old man with a pleasant, creased, almost childishly unbattered face, inhabiting the disorder of the three rooms he has lived in for more than sixty years.
What emerges from Leiter’s conversations with Leach is his unending preoccupation with his father, his ambivalence about the value of his work, and his steadfast drive to ward off any kind of lasting artistic recognition. “Everybody wants to be successful, except me,” he says, and he repeats the sentiment in one way or another incessantly.
His father, Wolf Leiter, was an Orthodox rabbi and a Talmudic scholar of some renown. He was born in Lemberg, in what was then a part of Galicia, and came to the United States in 1920 when he was twenty-nine. He was not a provincial shtetl Jew; his learning stretched beyond the books he published on Talmudic law—he mastered twelve languages and housed, in a separate building, a library of 15,000 volumes.
Of Wolf’s four children (three sons and a mentally ill daughter), Saul, by his own account, possessed his father’s talent for Hebraic study. They lived in Pittsburgh where Wolf was the head of a synagogue and school, but as a young boy, Saul, presumably because of his scholarly gift, was sent to a yeshiva in New York. At the age of nineteen he attended a rabbinical college in Cleveland. At some point, between leaving the college and moving permanently to New York to become an artist at the age of twenty-three, Saul told his father that he “didn’t plan to be a professional Jew.” His father disinherited him.
Sixty-five years later he apologizes for the remark—“It’s not a nice thing to say to your father”—with the air of a son who continues to mull over the decision, not with regret but with lingering shame. Later, speaking of his work, he tells Leach, “I see no reason to apologize,” as if some invisible force was provoking him to do so.
There is something heartbreaking about Leiter when he speaks of his father, as if measuring himself against him has kept him in a perpetual adolescence. He uses the word “great” to describe him, with the understanding that greatness is not a desirable achievement. He was “a great Talmudic scholar, a light in the diaspora,” he says with a warring measure of derision and pride. “Greatness was important…, great scholarship…, intellectual achievement,…knowing a great deal was important. Kindness? Well, if it interfered with the pursuit of knowledge and greatness and learning and scholarship, too bad. Get rid of it.” At one point, speaking of himself, he tells Leach, “I’m not carried away by the greatness of Mr. Leiter.” At another point he teasingly refers to himself as “a minor figure.”
Yet behind his self-deprecations are glimpses of a long-nourished ambition that he must have had in order to work stubbornly on. “Am I a heroic figure?” he asks rhetorically. “A giant straddling across the mountains of photography? I don’t think so.” He slyly manages to apply to himself the language of Olympian achievement.
After he turned away from his rabbinical studies, it was as if nothing he did could be serious. Seriousness, like marriage and family life for Kafka, belonged to his father. He had repudiated “nobility, purity, observance” in favor of the most evanescent instances of color and light that make no conscious claim on profundity.
Leiter, however, did submit his father to the interpretations of his camera. In a black-and-white photograph included in Saul Leiter: Early Black and White, taken in 1940 when Leiter was seventeen, Wolf, wearing an indoor Orthodox hat, round steel-rimmed glasses, and a trimmed beard, leans forward, concentrating on the book he is holding, a man beyond the temptation of frivolous distraction. Saul’s brother David (who did become a rabbi) crouches by his father’s side, a round-faced young man looking at the camera with stoical discomfort. Saul is hunched directly behind Wolf, wearing an almost identical hat, but with the slightly conspiratorial look of one who is already plotting his crime.
The photograph, of course, is posed. One imagines Leiter setting his camera up with a timer, placing the book in his father’s hands, instructing his brother where to stand. It was his way of having the final word.
Despite Leiter’s determination to remove himself from the horse race of important artists, his reputation, such as it was, never completely disappeared. Poor timing aided him in his project. In 1951, the Photo League was to sponsor a two-man show of Leiter’s and Robert Frank’s work, but the Justice Department closed the league down for being a “subversive organization” before the show could open.
Two years later, Edward Steichen included Leiter’s black-and-white photographs in a group show at MoMA called “Always the Young Stranger,” an event that would have been significant to the career of any young photographer, but one that Leiter would later say he had failed to appreciate. In 1955, Steichen invited Leiter to be part of what would become the hugely successful “Family of Man” exhibition at MoMA. Leiter, apparently having doubts about the worthiness of his work, declined.
In the 1960s he supported himself as a fashion photographer, mostly for Harper’s Bazaar. After about ten years—partly because advertising directors lost patience with his penchant for shooting out on the street, using available light, when possible—the fashion work dried up.
Decades of almost complete obscurity and penury followed. In 1992, his reputation suffered a slight lift when Jane Livingston included him in her New York School. According to Margit Erb, Leiter’s assistant late in his life, Richard Avedon steered Livingston to Leiter, telling her, “He needs you.”
With the publication of Early Color in 2006, Leiter abruptly became famous. He was eighty-two, and the amiable public idea of him as a pure artistic soul working for no gain, while enjoying what he called “the tremendous advantage of being unimportant,” was formed.
During his time in New York, he lived in only two apartments. The first was at 99 Perry Street in the West Village, where he moved in 1946 when he first came to the city; the second was at 111 East 10th Street between Second and Third Avenues, where he stayed from 1952 until his death in 2013. At least 95 percent of his photographs were taken a block or two from these apartments. Time and again you see 10th Street in his most potent images. He seemed to venture no further than the corner. He knew the street so well that he could pick up its shifts, its rhythms. He shot what was in front of him. It was a constant investigation of the familiar, of what he saw every day, in every weather and circumstance. Most photographers would become numb to such visual repetitions, but for Leiter it comprised a kind of treasure world—more than enough material for his lifetime.
Margit Erb, who is archiving Leiter’s work, estimates that he left more than 250,000 negatives and slides—so we can expect a lot of new material to emerge in the coming years. Erb and the Howard Greenberg Gallery are already organizing monographs and exhibitions from what they have unearthed in the 10th Street apartment.
Janet Malcolm has written that “photographers need to be protected…against photography’s plentitude. If a photographer’s achievement is not to be buried under an avalanche of images, his offerings to the world must be drastically pruned.” Leiter himself lamented that the ratio of clicks to a single worthy picture is about a thousand to one. One trusts that the pruning of his work will be done in such a way as to reinforce the brilliance of this singular artist.
The others are Levitt, Frank, Sid Grossman, Lisette Model, Louis Faurer, William Klein, Ted Croner, Weegee, Saul Leiter, Leon Levinstein, David Vestal, Bruce Davidson, Diane Arbus, and Richard Avedon. ↩
During its fifteen years of existence, the Photo League was probably New York’s most important gathering place for photographers, and one of the only places in the city that regularly mounted contemporary photographic exhibitions. In 1947, the US attorney general put it on the list of “subversive” organizations. In 1951 it was forced to close down. ↩
The photographers Arthur Siegel and Ernst Haas, who are not affiliated with the New York School, were also experimenting with color on city streets at the time. It’s difficult to know what effect their work had on Leiter’s or vice versa. In 1962, MoMA mounted a ten-year retrospective of Haas’s color work. But it wasn’t until the exhibition of photographs by William Eggleston at MoMA in 1976 that color photography, as art, became more widely accepted. ↩