Cinematic scene from a past era: This image is a detail from a photo by Saul Leiter, who immortalised the New York elevated railway "Third Avenue El" on colour slides in the mid-1950s before it disappeared from the cityscape. © Saul Leiter Foundation
Saul Leiter’s Third Avenue El Photography
Text — Elena Skarke – 20.11.2023
Translation: Patrick Ploschnitzki
Photos — Saul Leiter
All that remained of Manhattan’s elevated rail infrastructure in 1955 was one line – the Third Avenue El. Before it, too, was finally abandoned , photographer and painter Saul Leiter took a good look at the «Elevated Railway» (or El) with his camera lens. He created images that invite us to take a ride across town in 1950s New York City.
There were other contemporary photographers who immortalized the unique elevated rail structures in black-and-white images, e.g., the «sharp turn» near the Financial District’s Coentis Slip street. Saul Leiter was one of the few who captured not only the tracks, but also the ride experience - and to do so on color slide film.
Today, Leiter is considered one of the most prominent representatives of New York street photography. He captured the fleeting moments of 1940 metropolis’ dense crowds not just with extraordinary composition, but also with expertly crafted expression in both black-and-white and color images.
«He captured the fleeting moments of 1940 metropolis’ dense crowds not just with extraordinary composition, but also with expertly crafted expression in both black-and-white and color images.»
By the mid-twentieth century, color photography had become ubiquitous in popular media, i.e., magazines, movies, and television. But the technology remained a negligible phenomenon in artistic photography. Color was suspected of being superficial and gimmicky, whereas black-and-white’s monochrome grayscale allegedly conveyed authenticity and a degree of reality that focused on nothing but the essential.
Saul Leiter on the other hand experimented with color slide film as early as 1948 and remained loyal to it until the dawn of the new century. As a result, he left behind a substantial archive of around 40,000 images.  In the first decades of his work as an artist, it was mostly a selected group of close friends that received permission to enjoy his slide film projections: Leiter displayed only very few of his images or published them in magazines. It was not until the early 1990s that he began to produce color prints, which he displayed in gallery and museum exhibits, and eventually published in his iconic book «Saul Leiter: Early Color.»
Five years after Leiter’s death in 2013 (he was born in 1923), I started my work with the Saul Leiter Foundation that manages his estate by accessing his slide archive as part of my dissertation research.  One of the earlier thematic collections of Leiter’s color-photography oeuvre that we reviewed is dedicated to the Third Avenue El.
«Five years after Leiter’s death in 2013 (he was born in 1923), I started my work with the Saul Leiter Foundation that manages his estate by accessing his slide archive as part of my dissertation research.»– Elena Skarke
By the 1950s, when Leiter got on the elevated train carrying his camera, the railway system was already doomed. Soon after construction was completed in 1878, it became clear that the train would not be able to sufficiently support the city’s massive early 20th century population increase. As early as the 1920s, the railway was gradually abandoned in favor of the subway, which was inaugurated in 1904. After World War II, only the El line remained in service. 
The effects of yet another transportation turning point spelled its demise: The automobile became increasingly important and prestigious in the United States. In the spring of 1954, the New York City Transit Authority decided to shut down the El. On May 12, 1955, the last of its train cars rattled down its tracks, and by August that same year, the rails were torn down. 
This decision was surprising. After all, these elevated trains had characterized the cityscape and people’s lifestyles for centuries. Saul Leiter’s apartment on the East Village’s 10th Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenue, for example, was just a few steps from the El.
«After all, these elevated trains had characterized the cityscape and people’s lifestyles for centuries.»
Leiter’s images document his transformation from strolling flaneur on the streets of New York to passive passenger who explores the urban environment in an accelerated motion, discovering new perspectives.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, Manhattan’s architecture began to stretch towards the sky. This development would have been impossible without the first elevators, which showed up along with the first elevated tracks.
This elevated position allowed the photographer to capture an exciting view of the city’s urban texture. In a portrait-format image I discovered in his archive, Leiter juxtaposed the iron train tracks with the business of the street underneath (image above).
On the curb, in the shadows of the tracks, there is a row of 1950s-style cars – a clash of New York’s transportation past and future at the time. In this moment, the tracks still tower above the street that is about to release them in favor of the automobile.
«Leiter’s images document his transformation from strolling flaneur on the streets of New York to passive passenger who explores the urban environment in an accelerated motion, discovering new perspectives.»
Film material as a witness of the time: The fact that this slide from the artist's archive is from around 1955 can be deduced from the fact that Anscochrome films only came onto the market in the mid-1950s and that the operation of the Third Avenue El elevated railway line was discontinued in 1955. © Saul Leiter Foundation
We can reconstruct when the image was taken from the El’s history and the Anscochrome film that Leiter used for most of his slides: Given that the film was first released in the mid-1950s and the train ceased operation in 1955, the images were most likely created right before the El’s shutdown.
The color image presented here is an unedited digital copy of the original slide. The colors are no longer as rich in contrast and display a slight blueish color shift. Not only what is explicitly shown – the El’s last days and the transportation turning point – is a witness of history: The physical film material itself is as well. The color slides in Leiter’s archive (he mostly shot Kodachrome, Ektachrome, and Anscochrome) are in great condition all in all, despite their age of more than seventy years.
The dyes used by Ansco in Anscochrome slide film, which was sold using this name only until 1969, were a little less stable in comparison to Kodachrome, for example. From today’s perspective, the mild loss of color in the Anscochrome slides resonates aesthetically with the 1950s and 1960s motifs and fashion styles that Leiter captured. Today, they appear to us so fleeting, making them even more attractive to behold.
The fading dyes in these color images, which Leiter often corrected only marginally for prints and publications, thus become a synonym for memories that constantly move ever further into the past, and which remind us of what once was.
«The fading dyes in these color images, which Leiter often corrected only marginally for prints and publications, thus become a synonym for memories that constantly move ever further into the past, and which remind us of what once was.» – Elena Skarke
Leiter’s photography reveals an at times very specific view of the elevated train: Many of his images were created from an inside perspective, revealing his role as a passenger.
The image «Foot on El», which the artist later included in «Saul Leiter. Early Color», shows the interior of a train car. A men’s leather shoe rests on the upholstered bench, leaning into the picture from the edge of the frame. A windowpane, perceptible only due to the soft reflection of its surroundings, pushes its way into the scene, filling it entirely.
In another recently rediscovered image, the viewer looks through a windowpane as well; into a train car compartment. Here, we see a little girl, sitting in a pose that imitates an adult reading a paper. The window frames in the foreground provide the borders of the image. They fade into the dark, in contrast with the train’s brightly lit interior. In the background, the viewer can make out the Manhattan skyline in a side window.
In the foreground, reflections of facades can be seen on the train car door, framing the scene inside. Both images are characterized by a harmonious color palette that allows us to experience the warmth of the sun in the light-flooded train car section in a sensory manner.
This ride experience is in stark contrast with a means of transportation that is still highly frequented in New York to this day: the subway. Leiter also moved around the city using the underground rails – but he only took black-and-white pictures there. Presumably, the color slide films of the time were not light-sensitive enough for use in the barely lit subway tunnels.
Snapshots that bear witness to Saul Leiter's immersion in the urban environment: the untitled image on the left from around 1955 shows a girl imitating an adult pose while driving through New York. This photograph was published together with 75 other slides from Leiter's archive in 2022 in the book "Unseen Saul Leiter". In the right-hand image, also untitled and from around 1955, both the urban fabric of the metropolis and everyday objects appear in the reflections of the elevated railway windows. This photograph also comes from Leiter's archive and is previously unpublished. © Saul Leiter Foundation
In his most exciting compositions, Leiter converged the distant metropolis panorama view with the train’s interior. This accomplishment becomes particularly apparent in a previously unpublished color slide image, also captured on Anscochrome film (image above). Once again, Leiter photographed a train car scene: a row of seated passengers. In the foreground, the viewer sees a woman from the side, with her shopping bag placed in the seat next to hers. In the right half of the frame, a windowpane mirrors the tracks, the platform, and the city’s architecture piling up.
The distant view of New York’s panorama emphasizes the El’s meaning beyond a merely functional means of commuter transportation. The train allowed for an accelerated immersion into the urban environment, and Leiter’s images take us along for the ride.
The composed train car transparencies also reflected Leiter’s practical approach. The slide film’s transparency and its framing in an opaque box manifest in these images as a visual equivalent in the diaphanous glass of doors and windows and their panes. Leiter’s color photography thus allows for several approaches of interpretation, going beyond a mere visual documentation of urban infrastructure.
«The distant view of New York’s panorama emphasizes the El’s meaning beyond a merely functional means of commuter transportation. The train allowed for an accelerated immersion into the urban environment, and Leiter’s images take us along for the ride.» – Elena Skarke
The Third Avenue El connected north and south of the island of Manhattan. It carried its passengers across this urban space in a steady rhythm. As a complete body of work, Saul Leiter’s color photography allows us to become part of this motion across the City of New York.
Simultaneously, the extraordinary material aesthetics, i.e., the Anscochrome slide film’s unique color effects, shows the viewer that both medium and motif have become relics of a bygone medial and technological era: the El’s infrastructure has long since vanished from New York’s cityscape. Leiter’s images become unique contemporary documents inviting us to take a ride across 1950’s Manhattan. So what are you waiting for? All aboard!
 see New York City Transit - History and Chronology, Metropolitan Transportation Authority website (online), http://web.mta.info/nyct/110Anniversary/history.htm (May 28, 2023).
 Saul Leiter‘s slide film legacy is still not entirely archived until this day. The Saul Leiter Foundation estimates the total number of his slides to be somewhere between 40,000 and 60,000.
 Saul Leiter. Early Color, Göttingen 2006.
 The dissertation „Clicking with Color“: Saul Leiters Farbdiapositive, ca. 1948–1970 was defended in April 2023; it is currently in preparation for publication. A small selection of his slides, a total of 76, was published last year in Unseen Saul Leiter by the Saul Leiter Foundation: Unseen Saul Leiter, ed. Margit Erb and Michael Parillo, Heidelberg 2022.
 see Lawrence Stelter: By the El. Third Avenue and its El at Mid-Century (1995), Fotografien von Lothar Stelter, New York 2010, p. 8f.; see Stefan Höhne: New York City Subway. Die Erfindung des urbanen Passagiers, Köln, Weimar, Wien 2017, p. 54–56.
 see Stelter 1995, p. 107f.
 see Christopher Bonanos: Elevator, in: „The Encyclopedia of New York by the Editors of New York, New York, London, Toronto [and others], p. 88f.
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