Saul Leiter

United States 1923 - 2013


Saul Leiter
Saul Leiter
United States
December 26, 2014
Ok, I know it's so damn corny to quote somebody just to describe yourself, let alone Confucius, but this quote says all about my relationship with Widewalls, so forgive me for doing this: Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life. Am I forgiven?

Instead of becoming a teacher of Torah, this artist allowed himself to choose his own path and become an artist. The same principle was applied to his art. Always independent, an American photographer and painter Saul Leiter, gave an enormous contribution to the so-called New York school of photography but never felt part of any school or movement. His recipe was simple: Saul admired many artists, painters and photographers, but he was always headed for a point of view of his own. He arrived there, safe and sound.

Painter Richard Pousette-Dart encouraged Saul to pursue photography

Saul Leiter - Kathy and Gloria, 1949, Image copyrights © Howard Greenberg Gallery
Saul Leiter – Kathy and Gloria, 1949, Image copyrights © Howard Greenberg Gallery

From Exploring Pages of Talmud to the Streets of New York

Saul Leiter was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His father was an internationally renowned Talmudic scholar, so in the beginning, Saul (who bore the name of the first king of Israel) followed his steps and studied to become a Rabbi. But one thing stood in the way of his future Rabbi life – Saul’s mother gave him what will become his first camera at the age of 12. It was love at first site. His mother used to say he could be a rabbi and still make art and no one would know about it. His brother always said that Saul lives by the strange idea that a person should be happy, and life is not about happiness. This is the atmosphere Leiter grew up in. No wonder that later on, right in the middle of his theology schooling, Saul just couldn’t ignore the call to become an artist, the urge was unbearable – so he quit school and moved to New York to pursue painting at age 23, sent off by his family’s great disappointment. But, he was determined to immerse into the world of artistic creation and by then, he had developed a strong interest in painting and was fortunate enough to meet the Abstract Expressionist painter Richard Pousette-Dart who was experimenting with photography at the time. Pousette-Dart and W. Eugene Smith encouraged Leiter to pursue photography and he was soon taking black and white pictures with a 35 mm Leica, which he acquired for a few Eugene Smith prints. His early photographs show an extraordinary affinity for the medium but, at the same time, he continued to paint, exhibiting alongside Philip Guston and Willem de Kooning.

The painterly quality of Saul’s color photography

Saul Leiter - Man in Straw Hat, 1955, Taxi 1956 and Harlem 1960, Images copyrights © Howard Greenberg Gallery
Saul Leiter – Man in Straw Hat, 1955, Taxi 1956 and Harlem 1960, Images copyrights © Howard Greenberg Gallery

New York School of Photographers

In 1948, he started taking color photographs adding to it a painterly quality. Soon, Saul began associating with other contemporary photographers such as Robert Frank and Diane Arbus, and he helped form what Jane Livingston has termed the New York School of photographers, during the 1940s and 1950s. Leiter’s sensibility captured in photos is in a class with the painter Pierre Bonnard’s European intimism. That characteristic is what differentiates Saul from the other New York street photographers of his era. The complete lack of hectic urban anxiety, so typical for his fellow colleagues like Robert Frank or William Klein, is what makes Saul Leiter a master of capturing urban pastoral moments. The lyricism he was capable of, is presented in all its glory when Saul turned to color photography, assembling a comparable body of work in color. Saul quickly mastered the handling of color, adding, even more, intensity to his work and helping the development of his visual language, marked by a brilliant improvisation. The majority of Leiter’s creations have the pretty unconventional sense of form, one that flirts with the abstract, judging by the way the artist used found colors and tones. His asymmetrical visual rhythm along with unsaturated tonalities are directly inspired by Vermeer. Saul once said that he didn’t know he was a pioneer, but have been told he is one, so he just went ahead with redefining the parameters of street photography in the 1940s.

Saul redefined the parameters of street photography in the 1940s

Saul Leiter - Man with Tie, c.1949, Image copyrights © Howard Greenberg Gallery
Saul Leiter – Man with Tie, c.1949, Image copyrights © Howard Greenberg Gallery

Leiter’s Monochrome Photography

However, Saul’s monochrome photography never lost its place in the art world. Edward Steichen included Leiter’s black and white photographs in the exhibition Always the Young Stranger at the Museum of Modern Art in 1953. In the late 1950s 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 published in Show, Elle, British Vogue, Queen, and Nova. Even though Saul worked in a fashion industry mostly for practical reasons – sometimes enjoying it and other times not so much, what came as a huge surprise was the power of influence these shootings had on his private and more artistic work. His ability to search and find beauty in the most prosaic and ordinary places contributed to the vision of the urban environment he created, where no one is isolated and endless possibilities lie ahead, waiting for someone with the camera to capture and immortalize it. As Saul always claimed, he had no philosophy. He only had the camera and he would look into it and take pictures. Unpremeditated and quite naturally, Saul’s work aligned with the aesthetic of painters he admired, like Bonnard, Vuillard, Honami Koestu

Through the years, Leiter continued to work as both photographer and painter

Saul Leiter - Shades of Klimt, Painted Nudes series (detail), Image copyrights © The Guardian
Saul Leiter – Shades of Klimt, Painted Nudes series (detail), Image copyrights © The Guardian

Saul Leitner as a Painter

Leiter has made an enormous and unique contribution to photography simply by always following his vision. His abstracted forms and radically innovative compositions have a painterly quality that stands out among the work of his New York School contemporaries. Perhaps it’s because Leiter has continued through the years to work as both photographer and painter. He would often say that he is the biggest collector of Saul Leiter’s work – he kept thousands and thousands of pieces, and never stop working on them, endlessly adding or fixing something. His painterly sensibility reaches fruition in his painted photographs of nudes on which he has actually applied layers of gouache and watercolor.

Ed Lachman’s movie Carol was directly inspired by the work of Saul Leiter

Saul Leiter - Paris 1959, Snow, 1960 and Carol B, 1958, Images © courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, via British Journal of Photography
Saul Leiter – Paris 1959, Snow, 1960 and Carol B, 1958, Images © courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, via British Journal of Photography

Leitner’s Astonishingly Atmospheric Work Continues to Inspire

Todd Haynes’ film Carol, released in 2015 was shot by the famous cinematographer Ed Lachman who was directly inspired by the work of Saul Leiter and his astonishingly atmospheric work. Saul was a true master of layering he often depicted his subjects through windows blurry with condensation or reflected in car or shop windows. He mostly used color Kodachrome film – and it was expensive at the time so he would buy material that was passed its sell-by-date, enjoying the muted effect it had on his photos. The same effect and scenes we can see in this movie. When Cate Blanchett, who embodied Carol, is in a slow-moving car, cruising down a New York avenue – it feels if one of Leiter’s images just came to life…

Leiter’s work is featured prominently in Jane Livingston’s book The New York School and in Martin Harrison’s Appearances: Fashion Photography since 1945. His work is in the collections of many prestigious public and private collections. In 2008, The Foundation Henri Cartier-Bresson in Paris mounted Leiter’s first museum exhibition in Europe with an accompanying catalog.
Leiter is the subject of a 2013 documentary In No Great Hurry – 13 Lessons in Life with Saul Leiter and the documentary film Tracing Outlines by 2nd State Productions.

Saul Leiter closed his visionary eyes forever in 2013, in his beloved New York City.

Artwork images copyright © Howard Greenberg Gallery, British Journal of Photography and The Guardian

Saul Leiter’s profile image copyright © Taskovski Films

YearExhibition TitleGallery/MuseumSolo/Group
2016RetrospectiveThe Photographer's Gallery, LondonSolo
2015Finding BeautyHackelBury, LondonSolo
2015Saul Leiter - HomageGallery Fifty One, AntwerpSolo
2015Saul Leiter - RetrospektiveFFI - Fotografie Forum international, FrankfurtSolo
2015SELF: Portraits of Artists in Their AbsenceNational Academy Museum, New York City, NYGroup
2014Saul Leiter - Painted PhotographsHoward Greenberg Gallery, New York City, NYSolo
2014Augen Auf! 100 Jahre Leica FotografieDeichtorhallen Hamburg, HamburgGroup
2014The Image Gallery Redux:1959-1962Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York City, NYGroup
2013Saul Leiter - Works 1949 – 1960 Photography And Works On PaperGalerie Springer Berlin,BerlinSolo
2013Saul Leiter - A Life in Colour HackelBury Fine Art Limited, LondonSolo
2013Saul Leiter Solo ShowKunstHaus Wien, ViennaSolo
2013ChromaNicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto, ONGroup
2013First ChoiceGalerie Springer Berlin, BerlinGroup
2013Vivian Maier And Saul LeiterGallery Fifty One, AntwerpGroup
2013HungryJochen Hempel Berlin, BerlinGroup
2012Early ColourNicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto, ONSolo
2012Saul Leiter - FormaCentro Internazionale di Fotografia, MilanSolo
2012Early ColorGunGallery, StockholmSolo
2012Saul Leiter – RetrospektiveDeichtorhallen Hamburg, HamburgSolo
2012PhotographsFlo Peters Gallery , HamburgSolo
2012Vogelmen DiariesHeidelberger Kunstverein, HeidelbergGroup
2012Howard Greenberg, CollectionMusée de l Elysée, LausanneGroup
2012Private Contexts. The Collection Of Larisa Grinberg And Vladimir DudchenkoGrinberg Gallery,MoscowGroup
2012Private, MoscowGroup
2012Early ColorGalerie F5,6 für Fotografie, MunichGroup
2011Saul LeiterGallery Fifty One, AntwerpSolo
2011Beyond StyleGallery Fifty One, AntwerpGroup
2011ASPECTS OF COLOR. A History of Color in Photography from Pictorialism to ContemporaryKicken Berlin, BerlinGroup
2011Hyper Real – Kunst und Amerika um 1970Ludwig Forum für Internationale Kunst, AachenGroup
2011Water Gallery Fifty One, AntwerpGroup
2010Saul Leiter - Early ColorGrinberg Gallery, MoscowSolo
2010Photographies et PeinturesCamera Obscura, ParisSolo
2010Staff PicksHoward Greenberg Gallery, New York City, NYGroup
2010Hyper RealMuseum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig - MUMOK , ViennaGroup
2010Beyond Color: Color In American Photography 1950-1970Bruce Silverstein Gallery, New York City, NYGroup
2010Street Seen: The Psychological Gesture in American Photography, 1940–1959Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee, WIGroup
2009Saul LeiterGalerie F5,6 für Fotografie, MunichSolo
2009Saul Leiter: PaintingsKnoedler & Company, New York City, NYSolo
2009Saul Leiter - dancing in the streetMusée Nicéphore Niépce, Chalon sur SaôneSolo
2009Saul Leiter Solo ShowGallery Fifty One, AntwerpSolo
2009Through A Painters LensHolden Luntz Gallery, Palm Beach, FLGroup
2009About FaceEdward Thorp Gallery, New York City, NYGroup
2009Masters of PhotographyGallery Fifty One, AntwerpGroup
2009Photography on the StreetSaint Louis Art Museum, Saint Louis, MOGroup
2008Saul LeiterJackson Fine Art, Atlanta, GASolo
2008Saul LeiterCamera Obscura, ParisSolo
2008Saul Leiter - Early Colour 1948-1959Faggionato Fine Arts, LondonSolo
2008WomenHoward Greenberg Gallery, New York City, NYSolo
2008Early ColorGalleria Carla Sozzani, MilanSolo
2008Saul LeiterFondation Henri Cartier-Bresson, ParisSolo
2008The Figure TodayJenkins Johnson Gallery - San Francisco, San Francisco, CAGroup
2008Fashion in the Mirror: Self-Reflection in Fashion Photography The Photographers' Gallery,LondonGroup
2007Saul LeiterM+B, Los Angeles, CASolo
2007Saul Leiter - Early ColorUniversity of Maine Museum of Arts - UMMA, Bangor, MESolo
200725 years A CelebrationHoward Greenberg Gallery, New York City, NYGroup
2007The Photograph as CanvasThe Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Ridgefield, CTGroup
2007Invitational Exhibition of Contempory ArtThe American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York City, NYGroup
2007Mapping the CityStedelijk Museum Amsterdam, AmsterdamGroup
2006In Living Color: Photographs by Saul LeiterMilwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee, WISolo
2006Saul Leiter - Early ColorGallery Fifty One, AntwerpSolo
2006The Fashion Photographs of Saul LeiterFestival of Fashion Photography, Hyères, France.Solo
2006The Streets of New York: American Photographs from the Collection, 1938–1958The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DCGroup
2006Hyères 2006Villa Noailles, HyèresGroup
2005Saul Leiter, Early ColorHoward Greenberg Gallery, New YorkSolo
2004Saul Leiter, In ColorStaton Greenberg Gallery, Santa BarbaraSolo
2002New York SceneHoward Greenberg Gallery, New York City, NYGroup
2002Visions from AmericaPhotographs from the Whitney Museum of American Art 1940-2001.Group
2002New York: Capital of PhotographyThe Jewish Museum, New YorkGroup
1998Summer FunJan Kesner Gallery, Los Angeles, CAGroup
1997Saul Leiter, In ColorHoward Greenberg Gallery, New YorkSolo
1997Saul Leiter, In ColorMartha Schneider Gallery, ChicagoSolo
1996By NightFondation Cartier pour l'art contemporain, ParisGroup
1995By NightCartier Foundation, ParisGroup
1994The New York SchoolDean Jensen Gallery, MilwaukeeGroup
1991Appearances: Fashion Photography Since 1945Victoria and Albert Museum, LondonGroup
1980Fashion PhotographersHastings, Rinhart Galleries, New YorkGroup
1965The Photo EssayMoMA - Museum of Modern Art, New York City, NYGroup
1958Photographs from the Museum CollectionMuseum of Modern Art, New YorkGroup
1954Emerging Talent. Curated by Clement GreenbergSamuel Koontz Gallery, New YorkSolo
1953Contemporary PhotographyTokyo Museum, TokyoGroup
1953Always the Young StrangerMuseum of Modern Art, New YorkGroup
1947Abstract and Surrealist ArtArt Institute of Chicago, ChicagoGroup