Vermeer Around the Corner: A Review of “Forever Saul Leiter” and Dorothea Lange’s “Day Sleeper,” by Robert Dunn

What a sad and jubilant career Saul Leiter had! From some success shooting fashion (and fashioning his own groundbreaking color shots) back in the 1950s and ’60s, he went quiet as a photographer until 2006, when Steidl put out “Early Color,” in which we got one lovely, delicate, mysterious color shot after another. Every photo in the book was strong, and Leiter’s reputation was made. He was suddenly celebrated widely, and in effect he became an overnight Old Master of the photobook.

I use the phrase Old Master purposefully, because more and more we should consider greats such as Robert Frank, Berenice Abbott, William Klein, Walker Evans, Diane Arbus, William Eggleston, Nan Goldin, Daido Moriyama as just that, Old Masters. (Ready to fill up the forthcoming photobook wings of the Met and British museums, yes?) And Leiter of course fits right in.

I also use the phrase because for nearly ten years after 2008 pretty much the only Leiter photos we knew were the ones in “Early Color.” Which made him in ways the Johannes Vermeer of photography, not simply for the way they both focused on the quality of light, and had their own singular palettes and delicacy of vision and touch, but also because there were so few known works by both artists. Certainly the chance of a new Vermeer turning up after 350 years is near impossible. Saul Leiter? Well, read on.          

First, though, a personal turn. For most of his adult life Leiter lived on East 10th Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues. During my first ten years in New York, I had a $90-a-month (not a typo) apartment on East 11th Street between 1st and 2nd Avenues, which meant that anytime I was out walking the neighborhood there was a good chance I might pass Leiter. I was living the literary life back then, working at The New Yorker magazine and going to parties with the likes of John Updike, Norman Mailer, and Kurt Vonnegut, so I wouldn’t have noticed Leiter even if I had run across him. I also wouldn’t have known him because he was so far out of any mainstream eye. Just another middle-aged guy in the hood. I have no doubt I did walk past him, maybe even sat next to him, when he was hanging on his favorite bench in front of St. Marks Church (where in 1977 I saw Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell give a reading together).          

Ah, the East Village in the 1970s and early ’80s. You were in the center of a still breathtaking artistic ferment even as you prayed never to get mugged or robbed. The Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads at CBGBs. Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring at the FUN Gallery on East 11th, just west of me. And there right in the middle of it was old Saul Leiter working away painting and photographing in his apartment without any particular recognition.

Who knew? Well, fortunately we all do now, and thanks to the great work of Margit Erb and the Saul Leiter Foundation new works appear all the time. There have been black-and-white nudes, gouache paintings, and more and more photographs. I can’t say there have been huge surprises—Leiter is an artist with his own powerful, focused, essential vision—yet each release widens the scope of his work, and furthers our understanding of how rich and complex his achievement is.

Perhaps no book does this as much as the recently released “Forever Saul Leiter,” put out by the Japanese Manga publisher Shogakukan to accompany exhibitions at the Bunkamura Museum of Art in Tokyo and the Kyoto Museum.

In a way the book is a counterpart to 2017’s “All About Saul Leiter,” from Seigensha. Both books are the same size, with similar paper stock and type on their obis. And both books purport to cover a wide breadth of Leiter’s output. But while the earlier book, in a way one more introduction to Leiter, repeated a lot of the eminently well-known shots, “Forever Saul Leiter” adds photo after photo we have never seen before, always broadening our understanding of his work, his ambition, his accomplishment. (It also has a whole essay by Otake Akiko about, yep, living around the corner from Saul Leiter in the East Village. Guess I wasn’t alone.)

Yet what we have most of all in “Forever Saul Leiter” is that most elusive of photographic qualities: shots from a clear, distinct, unique eye. There’s not a photo in the book that doesn’t feel as if Saul Leiter took it. (Even a couple self-portraits as shadows on the ground; Lee Friedlander trademarks, though Leiter’s were evidently taken a decade earlier.) There are many more snowy and rainy scenes, often with boldly colored umbrellas, though none feel redundant from the well-known ones. There’s a beautiful photo, as great any Leiter shot we have, of snow falling around a street corner, a woman and man crossing the street in front of a two-tone green-and-white ’50s sedan, a large black pawn shop sign, and most of three quarters of the frame filled with the side of a building in that special red tone famous from Leiter’s Rothko-like shot (“Through Boards, 1957”) of layers of red, black, a thin slice of a car, then more black. (The building looks to me like the one on the northwest corner of Third Avenue and East 13th that I’d pass all the time on my way to the subway, famous for the doorway in the flick “Taxi Driver” in which teenage prostitute Jodie Foster hung out plying her trade.)

What makes “Forever Saul Leiter” such a revelation is all the different sections. There are new-to-us fashion photos, and more of those beautiful smoky or weather-blurred street scenes, pedestrians floating through them, this time in black and white as often as color. I think I prefer the color ones, like the ones from “Early Color,” because Leiter’s palette is so singular and expressive; but the black-and-white photos pack punches. One entitled “Freckles” from 1958, a girl in a cap and winter coat, with a pinched, furious glare, has the urgency and intensity of Robert Frank’s black-and-white shots from London around the same time. This is followed by a wooden car before a brick wall with a simple Goyaesque magic.

We also get a whole flock of self-portraits, not just the two street-shadow photos mentioned above, but a lot of shots through store window glass, Leiter’s reflection almost lost among mannequins and other forms. I did a book awhile back called “Eye and Eye,” which was all self-portraits shot into various surfaces that made me virtually unrecognizable. I count that off to my own way of shooting, as well as a bit of modesty, lack of interest in spreading my image about; and I believe Leiter, in all his quiet East Village perambulations and just-another-guy-on-the-bench life-style, shares those qualities. The self-portraits certainly do.

Then there are the women, particularly his partner for decades, Soames Bantry, a professional model. A whole swarm of new photos of Soames, photos always dramatic, original, with a lovely and well-loved woman at their center. As Leiter says, “I shared my life with Soames. We had moments where, in spite of all the problems, we had an inability to concentrate on misery properly, and a tendency to enjoy life. And I don’t think that’s such a bad thing.”

I can’t think of any photographer with such a complex, joyful, and lovely relationship with a model partner. Soames nude reaching for an ashtray out of bed. Soames laughing gleefully in a man’s white shirt. Soames “listening to music,” pensive through a diner window. Soames even more pensive, possibly troubled, with nose resting on knuckles in close-up. Soames back in model mode in a fur and velvet coat, mock-playing a violin, a wistful look on her turned-to-the-side face, two dogs at her side.

Yes, some shots in professional model mode, but most drawn from telling moments day-to-day. Photos that are simply ways for Saul to say, I love you.

There’s a lot of love in Leiter’s work; that might be its animating secret. And there’s also a lot of deep understanding of photography. I used the word master before, and let me try to say this book is a master class without stirring the banality of the phrase. For it is. Wonder how to shoot a couple kissing in a hallway? There’s a lovely chiaroscuro pair going at it on page 162 in a black-and-white shot redolent of Frank’s use of illuminated bulbs, Leiter’s photo taken a couple years before “The Americans” was published. Shoot a Lower East Side street? Pull the camera back, get two pigeons to perch on the asphalt, and flood the whole thing with bountiful falling light. Light? You students have heard that’s the key to photography, control the light. Well, here’s a, um, master class.

It’s tempting to go on and on with all one can learn from “Forever Saul Leiter,” and they’re a lot of the lessons we all took from what other of his work we’ve seen. The thing is, though, we’re blessed now with “Forever Saul Leiter,” with all its new-to-us photos; its stretching of his subjects and styles; the contact sheets; the self-portraits from 1939; the introduction of Leiter’s first personal subject, his sister Deborah; a range of lovely almost Japanese black-ink washes; a first glimpse of what are evidently legions of color slides (note to the Brooklyn Museum: after your hugely successful 2019 show of unseen Garry Winogrand slides, how about one with Leiter’s?); and perhaps most important this wide range of heretofore unknown photos of lover and muse Soames Bantry … yet in a way as you think you’re discovering a new Leiter, really you’re just in the presence of a vastly more complex and expansive soul.

That artist, who through his cache of beautiful photos published thirteen years ago in “Early Color” struck us as a Vermeer, turns out, by the end of “Forever Saul Leiter,” to be much more like a Picasso: ever creative, ever changing, ever venturesome, working in various media, and overall informed by original takes on love and new visions of beauty.

The respect and admiration for Leiter’s life and work only keeps growing. “Forever,” indeed.

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Another Old Master we’ve recently learned more about is Dorothea Lange, thanks to photographer Sam Contis in her powerful book of Lange’s work, “Day Sleeper.”

Think Dorothea Lange and you immediately think of migrant workers, especially the 1936, Farm Security Administration–supported photo of the troubled woman, fingers to chin, two of her children’s faces turned from the camera, another child swaddled in her arms. It’s the picture of the Depression. (And like all iconic photos, it’s fascinating to see the outtakes: photos of some strength and intensity, but nothing close to the one we know so well. That’s what makes the masters: they can grab that one photo that transcends all the others shot that day … or any day. And know it.)

In “Day Sleeper,” we see vast ranges of Lange’s subject matter and moods. More Depression shots, many African-American portraits, personal photos (a body entangled in bed sheets), a guy on a cable car in a Navy uniform who looks a lot like my own father in his Navy uniform. There are a few nudes, and a shot of a woman testifying in a makeshift revival church, head back, palms up, the Holy Spirit almost palpable as it ripples around her.

There are also a lot of surprises. I love the wit of the sign that reads, “See the World Before You Leave It! Buy Your TV Set Today,” followed by two striking and intense Black professional women striding down a city street, stylish pencil skirts just covering their knees, pocket books waving. Lange also goes much farther outside. There’s a photo of a wild white horse kicking up dust, followed by undulating hills outside San Luis Obispo, California. There’s really every kind of photograph. For one, a posed shot of a young woman from Lange’s portrait studio, the most successful one in San Francisco in the ’20s and ’30s. That photo is two shots after a disturbing photo of a blue eagle tied to a barbed wire fence, its wings spread; and between the two shots just mentioned is one of Japanese-American women making camouflage nets for the war effort even as they’re being “impounded” (read: literally imprisoned) during WW II.

Yep, Lange got around. Every photo in “Day Sleeper” is powerful, many revealing, some as great as any photograph ever taken. Contis’s intense and sympathetic edit and clever and helpful notes make the book far more than just more photos by a photographer we may have known more by name than the full bloom of her work.

May our culture’s continuing fascination and study of the Grand Masters of the photobook keep bringing forth works as revealing and essential as these two here.

A selection of Saul Leiter titles can be purchased here.  Day Sleeper by Dorothea Lange & Sam Contis is available here.

Robert Dunn is a writer, photographer, and teacher. His latest novel is Savage Joy, inspired by his first years in NYC and working at The New Yorker magazine. His photobooks OWS, Angel Parade, Carnival of Souls, and New York Street are in the permanent collection of the libraries of the Museum of Modern Art and the International Center of Photograph (more info on Dunn’s own photobooks here; prints of his work can be ordered here, follow his instagram here). Dunn also teaches a course called “Writing the Photobook” at the New School University in New York City.

Forever Saul Leiter

Day Sleeper