Week #39 New York: a series of street photographs 1950-1960

by SJ Finn

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The late Saul Leiter moved to New York City from Cleveland in 1946 at the age of 23. There, after starting out as a painter, he began to work for fashion magazines as a photographer. His legacy, however, comes from his love and eye for street photos that he took in and around East Village during the 1950s. It is a legacy that may well have slipped from notice if not for the persistence of British art historian, Martin Harrison, who tracked Saul Leiter down at the end of the 1980s.

What attracts me to the shots is there elusive and yet compelling complexity. Like none I have seen do quite as successfully, they tell a story of weather, place, people and mood. They are composed, sometimes with out-of-focus halves, or through fog or mist or snow. The images are enhanced with reflections or by juxtaposing objects that, while appearing to be randomly selected, create a balance of composition that begs for enquiry.

Often there is an abstract element to the work that has the counterintuitive outcome of deepening the experience of viewing the photographs, rather than of simplifying. And, despite the evidence of an era (clothing and automobiles leave no doubt about the decade the shots were taken in) these photographs have a timeless quality that makes them as relevant to our emotional sensibilities today as when they were taken. Here is Saul in the flesh, so to speak, and below a few of his many street snaps.

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