Saul Leiter – The Quiet American Pioneer of Color Photography

Updated: Aug 2, 2020

"I don't have a philosophy. I have a camera." ~Saul Leiter

“Mr. Leiter was a photographer less of people than of perception itself.” ~ Art critic Roberta Smith
“Saul Leiter had, an uncanny ability to pull complex situations out of everyday life, images that echo the abstraction of painting and yet, simultaneously, clearly depict the world.” ~Magnum Photographer Alex Webb

Saul Leiter (December 3, 1923 – November 26, 2013) was an American photographer and painter whose early work in the 1940s and 1950s was an important contribution to what came to be recognized as the “New York school of photography.” Mr. Leiter was born in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, USA on December 3rd, 1923. His father was a well-known Talmud scholar and Leiter studied to become a rabbi. At age 23, he left theology school and moved to New York City to become an artist. He had developed an early interest in painting and was fortunate to meet the Abstract Expressionist painter Richard Pousette-Dart, who was experimenting with photography. Pousett-Dart and the famous photographer W. Eugene Smith encouraged Leiter to try his hand at photography, leading to a lifelong career spent documenting his East Village neighborhood of New York City. He chose to shoot in color in the 1940s, well before other art photographers adopted the medium, and together with other contemporary photographers such as Robert Frank, William Klein and Diane Arbus, helped form the “New York school of photography.”

Saul Leiter was one of the quiet men of American photography. A pioneer of color, he remained relatively unsung until he was rediscovered by curators and critics in his early 80’s. Even then, Leiter was reluctant to accept the belated praise heaped upon him. He often used to say:

"What makes anyone think that I'm any good?"

Leiter’s greatness, though, was evident in his often painterly images, which evoked the flow and rhythm of life on the mid-20th century streets of New York City in luminous color, at a time when his contemporaries were shooting in black and white. At times in Leiter’s photos, the warmth of the colors can give way to more faded tones, an effect that he achieved by intentionally using out-of-date Kodachrome film.

Leiter's street photographs are more complex and impressionistic. They are as much about evoking an atmosphere as nailing the decisive moment. It is his color photographs of New York that matter. Mostly taken in and around the East Village neighborhood where he lived, they are oblique and oddly intimate. He often photographed passersby through, or reflected in, windows. Frequently, the windows are steamed or grimy and the end results blurred, hazy and multi-layered. Quite often, colorful umbrellas and the extensive use of negative space plays a significant role in directing a viewer’s attention within his photographs. A natural iconoclast and an artist who preferred being unknown to being famous, Saul Leiter was a one-off. His photographs are the quiet, yet vibrant, products of his refined imagination and his ever-attentive eye. The predominant emotion in his work is the silence, the tenderness, and the grace that is in contrast to the mad rush of life on the streets of New York City. Saul Leiter used to often say:

“I happen to believe in the beauty of simple things. I believe that the most uninteresting thing can be very interesting.”

Art critic Roberta Smith wrote in 2005: “Mr. Leiter’s painter’s instincts served him well in his emphasis on surface, spatial ambiguity and a lush, carefully calibrated palette. But the abstract allure of his work doesn’t rely on soft focus, a persistent, often irritating photographic ploy, or the stark isolation of details…. Instead, Mr. Leiter captured the passing illusions of everyday life with a precision that might almost seem scientific, if it weren’t so poetically resonant and visually layered.”

Saul Leiter also worked as a fashion photographer for an extensive period of time and was published in Show, Elle, British Vogue, Queen, and Nova. In the late 1950’s the art director Henry Wolf published Leiter’s color fashion work in Esquire and later in Harper’s Bazaar. Edward Steichen included Leiter’s black and white photographs in the exhibition “Always the Young Stranger” at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 1953. In 2008, The Foundation Henri Cartier-Bresson in Paris mounted Leiter’s first museum exhibition in Europe with an accompanying catalog.

Martin Harrison, editor and author of Saul Leiter Early Color (2006), writes, "Leiter’s sensibility . . . placed him outside the visceral confrontations with urban anxiety associated with photographers such as Robert Frank or William Klein. Instead, for him the camera provided an alternate way of seeing, of framing events and interpreting reality. He sought out moments of quiet humanity in the Manhattan maelstrom, forging a unique urban pastoral from the most unlikely of circumstances."

Saul Leiter died on November 26, 2013 in New York, USA at the age of 89. In 2014, the Saul Leiter Foundation was founded which is dedicated to preserving the art and legacy of the artist. Today, his works are held in the collections of the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and the Art Institute of Chicago, among others.

All photos and content taken from the Saul Leiter Foundation website, the Lens Culture website, the Studio Nicholson website and Wikipedia.


Contributed by :

Mustafa Habib Chowdhury

Freelance Travel Photographer by passion

and a Professor of Engineering by profession



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