About Saul Leiter (1923-2013)


The American artist Saul Leiter, the son of a rabbi and distinguished Talmudic scholar, was born in Pittsburgh in 1923. Leiter’s interest in painting began in his late teens. In 1946, when he was 23, he left the theological college he was attending in Cleveland and moved to New York City to pursue painting. Shortly after his arrival he met the Abstract Expressionist painter Richard Pousette-Dart, who was experimenting with photography. Leiter’s friendship with Pousette-Dart, and soon after with W. Eugene Smith, along with the photography exhibitions he saw in New York, particularly Henri Cartier-Bresson’s at the Museum of Modern Art in 1947, inspired him.

By 1948 Leiter had begun to experiment in color, largely using Kodachrome 35 mm film past its sell-by date. His main subjects were street scenes and his small circle of friends. Leiter made an enormous and unique contribution to photography with a highly prolific period in New York City in the 1950s. His abstracted forms and radically innovative compositions have a painterly quality that stands out among the work of his New York School contemporaries. His earliest photographs in black-and-white and color show an extraordinary affinity for the medium.

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

Edward Steichen included Leiter’s black-and-white photographs in the exhibition Always the Young Strangers at the Museum of Modern Art in 1953. Steichen also included 20 of Leiter’s color photographs in his slide talk “Experimental Photography in Color” at MoMA in 1957. Starting in 1958 the art director Henry Wolf published Leiter’s color fashion work in Esquire and later in Harper’s Bazaar. Leiter continued to work as a fashion photographer for the next 20 years and was also published in Show, Elle, British Vogue, Queen, and Nova.

In the early 1980s Leiter was faced with financial difficulties that forced the closure of his Fifth Avenue studio. For the next two decades he lived and worked virtually unknown. In 2006, with the help of the art historian Martin Harrison and Howard Greenberg Gallery, the groundbreaking monograph Saul Leiter: Early Color was published by Gerhard Steidl in Germany. What Leiter called his “little book” became an overnight sensation with worldwide distribution and firmly established the artist as an early pioneer in the history of color photography.

In 2006 the Milwaukee Museum of Art held the first U.S. museum show of Leiter’s photographs. In 2008 Leiter traveled to Paris for his first European exhibition, at the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson. Also in 2008, Leiter had his first painting exhibition in 30 years, at Knoedler Gallery in New York. In 2012 he was the subject of Tomas Leach’s highly acclaimed documentary Saul Leiter: In No Great Hurry, which continues to be shown at film festivals throughout the U.S., Europe, and Japan.

“We live in a world full of expectations,
and if you have the courage, you ignore the expectations.
And you can look forward to trouble.”

Leiter has been prominently featured in solo museum and gallery shows in the U.S. and Europe. His work is included in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the Art Institute of Chicago; the Baltimore Museum of Art; the Victoria and Albert Museum; the National Gallery of Australia; the Whitney Museum of American Art; the Milwaukee Art Museum; the Yale University Art Gallery; and other prestigious public and private collections.

Saul Leiter passed away at his home in New York City’s East Village on November 26, 2013, leaving behind an immense archive of his life’s work in art. In the New York Times obituary on Leiter, Margalit Fox writes, “Of the tens of thousands of images he shot—many now esteemed as among the finest examples of street photography in the world—most remain unprinted.”

In 2014 the two-volume book set Saul Leiter: Early Black and White was published by Steidl. Saul Leiter: Retrospective, an exhibition organized by the Deichtorhallen Museum in Hamburg, continues to travel to major European museums; its next stop, in 2019, is the Kunstfoyer in Munich. Meanwhile, the show Photographer Saul Leiter: A Retrospective, which opened in 2017 at the Bunkamura Museum of Art in Tokyo, is traveling in Japan, with Seigensha’s accompanying monograph, All About Saul Leiter, in its eleventh printing and now available in four international editions.

In 2018 a little-seen body of the artist’s work came to light: black-and-white nudes, mostly taken in the late 1940s through the early 1960s. These photographs, very much equal collaborations between Leiter and the women in his life, are presented in the books In My Room from Steidl and Women from the Japanese publisher Space Shower, and have been shown in exhibitions at the Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York and the Helmut Newton Foundation in Berlin.

“I believe that there is something in you that strives for order,
and within that order there’s a certain kind of mishmoshy confusion,
and you bring this mishmoshy confusion, if you succeed,
into some kind of order. There’s an element of control, and there’s also
an element that just happens—if you’re very lucky.
Artists need luck.”
Leiter quotations are from a 2006 interview with Mitch Teich on WUWM’s Lake Effect radio show and are used with permission.