The history of colour photography in the art world is very well-known. There is no need repeating it here. But history is only useful if we treat it as living, evolving history - which means we have to re-evaluate it time and time again. And occasionally, new insights, new discoveries (or re-discoveries) might force us to re-consider history. A good case in point is provided by Saul Leiter’s photographs, in particular the colour work. These photographs have slowly made their way into the public’s consciousness, and a major retrospective in Hamburg (Germany) is now forcefully making the case for a re-write of the history of colour photography in the art world. For those who cannot travel to Hamburg, there is Saul Leiter, the book produced at the occasion of the exhibition. (In the following, I am going to differentiate between the book and the photographer through the use of italics for the book title) (more)
Of course, we could have all kinds of debates about the history of colour photography now. Many of those debates will center on what led to some photographers being considered as having brought colour into the art world, while others - such as Leiter - so far have been mostly ignored. There is a risk here: We could easily end up debating the role of influential curators (Szarkowski) or of money (for a long time, Leiter was unable to afford making prints from his slides). But talking about the history of photography means to talk about photographs, and not about why or how certain photographs have been selected over others (otherwise, we’d simply be engaged in a history of the history of photography - some people might find this fascinating, I don’t).
What is particularly interesting about Leiter’s colour (and many of his b/w) photographs is his way of seeing, his way of working with reflections and windows, his layering of information. Many of those photographs are very complex even though they look simple at first sight (this could be a good criterion for what makes a good photograph). Even if one was not very interested in the whole debate about the history of colour (which I’d certainly understand), I don’t think one can that easily pass by the opportunity to experience this particular way of seeing. I feel that talking about this within the scope of a photobook review would not be the right occasion, so I’ll leave this for a future article.
As a book for a retrospective, Saul Leiter shines. The book presents the photographer’s work in probably the best possible way, with many example photography and essays, all of which are very much readable and informative (something that, sadly, is not always the case for such books). A lot of attention has been paid to details: For example, the book smartly uses different types of paper for different purposes - such as the essays, the main pages, or the reproductions of sketch books or magazine spreads. The design is elegant. The essays are given in their original languages first (English or German), with translations at the end of the book. This might confuse an audience that only speaks English, but for a German publisher it’s a bold - and obvious - move: most Germans are able to at least read English.
The book includes work from across the full range of the artist’s work, including spreads from fashion magazines, reproductions of b/w and colour photographs, plus paintings and overpainted photographs. One can only hope that it will be widely seen and enjoyed, and one can only hope that it will trigger a re-newed debate about the evolution of colour photography in an art context.
Saul Leiter, photographs/paintings by Saul Leiter, essays/text by Dirk Luckow, Ingo Taubhorn, Adam Harrison Levy, Ulrich Rüter, Vince Aletti, Carrie Springer, Rolf Nobel, Brigitte Woischnik, Margit Erb, Saul Leiter, 296 pages, Kehrer, 2012