Saul Leiter

Saul Leiter

Saul Leiter

When famous New York photographers began photographing the city in black and white in the mid-twentieth century, Saul Leiter captured the uninhabited details of the city in expressive colors.  Using past history films, Leiter saw the streets with strong reds and shadows.  “Seeing is something ignored,” he said.  As a painter, he depicted the effects of place — figures, snow, fog, concrete, and lights — as a painter’s engravings.

Leiter, like all street photographers, was a visionary of the principle of good fortune, but his art did not cover a large area of the city.  He took most of his photographs in the two neighborhoods around his home in Eastville, New York City, where he lived from 1952 until his death in 2013.

By the end of Leiter’s life, however, no one but those around him had seen his colorful and personal works.  In the 1940s, he turned to the fledgling medium, which was attributed to flamboyant advertising photography and amateur photographers, not artists.  Walker Owens called color photography “vulgar,” and his contemporaries, including Robert Frank and Ansel Adams, agreed.

When William Eggleston, Helen Levitt and Steven Scherr ushered in the color age of art photography in the 1970s, Leiter lived with fashion photography during the heyday of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue magazines.  But since the 1980s, he has been heavily in debt and more or less forgotten.

Leiter ‘s works became known in major exhibitions and books in the last years of his life.  His cinematic eye and the satirical colors of his work were widely acclaimed and a source of inspiration — for example, for Oscar-nominated filmmaker Todd Haynes (2015) and Sam Mendes.  But most of Leiter’s work was not published: hundreds of thousands of negatives and slides, which he hid in boxes in his house.

Search for beauty

Leiter was born in 1923 in Pittsburgh to a Jewish family whose men were studying religion and becoming rabbis.  His father was a religious scholar and “Light in the Diaspora”, as Leiter describes in the documentary Without Hurry: 13 Lessons from Life with Sol Leiter (2013).  He was the leader of the Orthodox Jewish Association in New York.  Leiter was supposed to follow in the footsteps of his ancestors, but at the age of 23 he left the Cleveland seminary and took a bus to New York City to begin his art career.

“I grew up in a religious world, and in the midst of all the worries about cleanliness, decency, and religious laws,I wanted to get rid of these things,” Leiter said in the documentary. His family did not agree with his new path.  As a child, his mother rewarded him with a Detrola camera without knowing that it could change the course of his life.

In New York, Leiter found painting as a way to satisfy his sense of color.  His friend Richard Pousette-Dart, an abstract expressionist artist, encouraged him to pursue photography as well.  He introduced Leiter to news photographer William Eugene Smith.  (Although Leiter is best known for his photography, he continued painting for the rest of his life.)

In Leiter’s first black-and-white street photographs, his interest in shadows, image blurring, and certain angles can be seen.  Inside, he also took intimate portraits and lustful nude body photographs — small noir dramas performed in front of his lens.  But with color photography, Leiter was able to see his world in a way that was uniquely his own, with mystery and special ambient light, such as untitled photographs (Two Men in Hats on a Night Train) (1950) and San Genaro (1958), or the intricate colors of sidewalk photography.  .  It did not matter to him whether his subject was in the center of the frame or clearly focused, but played with a place where the viewer’s eye might go.  Leiter seldom printed the photos, but instead gathered his friends to display his photos with projected slides on the wall.

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