Saul Leiter was born in Pittsburgh in 1923 and was an American photographer and painter whose early work in the 1940s and 1950s went mostly unrecognized. While his parents encouraged him to become a Rabbi, and he studied theology until the age of 23, he eventually moved to NYC to become an artist. Although his interest was in painting, expressionist painter Richard Pousette-Dart and photographer W. Eugene Smith pushed him toward photography. So, along with a Leica, he started down a path of black and white photography.
Saul Leiter and the New York School
In 1948 he changed course and began doing most of his work in color. He soon began associating with other photographers, including Robert Frank and Diane Arbus, and helped form what came to be known as the ‘New York School’ of photographers during the 1940s and 1950s. Along with his street work, he began working as a fashion photographer for the next 20 years. Although that work never excited him, he was published in Show, Elle, British Vogue, Queen, and Nova, and others regularly. His first color work in that genre was published in the 50’s in Esquire and Harper’s Bazaar.
Edward Steichen used Leiter’s black and white photographs in an exhibition “Always the Young Stranger” at the Museum of Modern Art in 1953. His work is also featured in Jane Livingston’s book “The New York School”, which was published in 1992, and also the book “Appearances: Fashion Photography since 1945”. After that, it seemed he fell off the face of the earth. It wasn’t until the start of a new century that curators began to seek him out.
The ‘Foundation Henri Cartier-Bresson’ in Paris mounted his first museum exhibition in Europe. And books of his early works started to hit the shelves. In fact, a plethora of works that went mostly unrecognized during his lifetime. The books included “Saul Leiter: Early Color“, “Saul Leiter: In My Room“, “Saul Leiter (Photofile)“, “Saul Leiter“, “Saul Leiter…(by Agnès Sire), “Colors“, “Here’s More, Why Not“, “Early Black and White” and “Saul Leiter Photographs and Works On Paper“.
His Long Lens Leica
He mostly used a Leica. But what most people still find unique about his work, even to this day, is his use of longer lenses on his Leica,…especially the 90mm. A compression in images that almost gave a pastoral effect to NYC’s hectic, urban landscape.
He has only recently been rediscovered and receiving his due as one of the great pioneers of color photography. Saul Leiter died in 2013. But his work lives on. He is still represented in New York by the Howard Greenberg Gallery. And check out the Saul Leiter Foundation link below, including the documentary film on his life.