The Artist Who Kept His Dreamy, Colorful Street Photography Secret for Decades

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Saul Leiter, Red Umbrella, 1951, from “Early Color.” Courtesy of Steidl.
Saul Leiter, Red Umbrella, 1951, from “Early Color.” Courtesy of Steidl.

As New York’s famous mid-century photographers set out to capture the city in shades of black and gray, Saul Leiter  rendered its unassuming details in expressive color. Using temperamental expired film, Leiter saw the streets in sharp punches of red and vast seas of shadow. “Seeing is a neglected enterprise,” Leiter once said. A painter as well, he captured the impression of a place—figures, snow, fog, concrete, and lamplight—daubed, like brushstrokes.

Like all street photographers, Leiter abided by the laws of serendipity, but his muse wasn’t the great expanse of the city; he shot the majority of his work in the two blocks surrounding his home in the East Village, where he lived from 1952 until his death in 2013.

Saul Leiter, Phone Call, 1957, from “Early Color.”  Courtesy of Steidl.
Saul Leiter, Phone Call, 1957, from “Early Color.” Courtesy of Steidl.

Yet except for his inner circle, no one saw Leiter’s personal color work until toward the end of his life. He adopted the nascent medium in the 1940s, when it was relegated to splashy advertisements and amateur shooters, not fine artists. Walker Evans called color photography “vulgar,” and his contemporaries like Robert Frank and Ansel Adams agreed. When William EgglestonHelen Levitt, and Stephen Shore ushered in the era of color in the 1970s, Leiter, a private man who never sought fame, was barely a footnote. He had made a living shooting fashion during the heyday of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, but by the ’80s, he was deep in debt and nearly forgotten.

In his final years and following his death, Leiter’s work was recognized at last, with major exhibitions and books. His cinematic eye and gauzy hues have been widely appreciated and tapped for inspiration—notably by filmmaker Todd Haynes for the Oscar-nominated Carol (2015), as well as Sam Mendes. But the majority of Leiter’s work was left unprinted: hundreds of thousands of negatives and slides, which he kept stashed in boxes around his home.

A search for beauty

Saul Leiter, from “In My Room.” Courtesy of Steidl.
Saul Leiter, from “In My Room.” Courtesy of Steidl.

Leiter was born in 1923 in Pittsburgh to a Jewish family in which the men found their calling in the rabbinate. His father, a theological scholar and “a light in the diaspora,” as Leiter put it in the 2013 documentary In No Great Hurry: 13 Lessons in Life with Saul Leiter, was a leader in the city’s Orthodox Jewish community. Leiter was meant to continue that lineage, but he left his Cleveland seminary at age 23 and took a bus to New York City to begin his career in art.

“I got fed up with the whole religious world and all the preoccupations with purity and nobility and observance—I wanted to be free of those things,” Leiter said in the documentary, which was directed by Tomas Leach. His family did not approve of his new trajectory. His mother had gifted him a Detrola camera when he was a child, not knowing it would reorient his entire life.

In New York, Leiter found an outlet for his sense of color through painting. His friend, the Abstract ExpressionistAbstract Expressionism“It seems to me that the modern painter cannot express this age, the airplane, the atom bomb, the radio, in the old forms oFollow Richard Pousette-Dart, encouraged him to pursue photography as well, and introduced him to photojournalist W. Eugene Smith. (Though he’s now best known for his photography, Leiter continued to paint for the rest of his life.)

Snow
Snow, 1960 Hindman

In Leiter’s early black-and-white street photographs, his fascination with shadow, blur, and peculiar angles is already present. He took intimate interior portraits and sensual nudes as well—small noir dramas playing out in front of his lens.

But color photography allowed Leiter to see the world in a way that was uniquely his own, through the mystery and peculiar ambient light of images like Untitled (two men in hats on train at night) (1950) and San Genaro (1958), or the muted woven hues in the undated photograph Sidewalk. He didn’t care to capture his subject centered and in focus, but played with where a viewer’s eyes might travel. Leiter rarely printed these images, instead gathering his friends to view them as color slides projected on his walls.

Leiter wasn’t interested in the human condition, like Frank or Diane Arbus; instead he understood the simple poetry of a stranger’s silhouette, or raindrops on a window pane. “I may be old-fashioned, but I believe there is such a thing as a search for beauty—a delight in the nice things in the world. And I don’t think one should have to apologize for it,” he said in In No Great Hurry.

A career nearly forgotten

Untitled (two men in hats on train at night)

Untitled (two men in hats on train at night)
, 1950
GALLERY FIFTY ONE

In 1953, Leiter received a break when Edward Steichen included his work in the show “Always the Young Strangers” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “Some of my friends, I think, were jealous, but I didn’t understand,” Leiter recalled in the documentary. “I have sometimes overlooked the fact that something was actually of some importance.” Two years later, Steichen curated the show “The Family of Man,” which would become one of the most influential photography exhibitions ever, but Leiter turned down his invitation to participate.

Though Leiter cared little for prestige, he had to make money. He showed art director Henry Wolf his color work and began shooting for Harper’s Bazaar. With the same sensibility as his street work, he photographed models soft-focused or behind glass. Editors at VogueElle, and Esquire took notice of his unusual, elegant approach. In a 1966 portrait of supermodel Jean Shrimpton for Vogue, Leiter focused on a blossoming stem in the foreground while Shrimpton is softened behind it, the image dappled in greens and peaches, a wash of soft pink over half of her face.

Jean
Jean, ca. 1948
GALLERY FIFTY ONE

Leiter never cared to network, and with few commissions and back taxes to pay in the 1980s, he was forced to sell his Fifth Avenue studio. He became reclusive in his East Village apartment, which he shared with artist Soames Bantry, his longtime partner who often sat for his photographs and paintings, and who died in 2002.

Leiter may have faded entirely into obscurity if it weren’t for Richard Avedon. In 1992, the photographer recommended to curator Jane Livingston that Leiter be included in the book The New York School: Photographs, 1936–1963. Following the book’s publication, gallerist Howard Greenberg added Leiter to his roster and, in 2005, exhibited Leiter’s color work in New York. The following year, Steidl published his first monograph, Early Color, followed by the posthumous Early Black and White (2014) and In My Room(2018). Since his death, Leiter’s work has steadily been exhibited in international solo exhibitions.

Saul Leiter, Self Portrait with Inez, c. 1947, from “In My Room.” Courtesy of Steidl.
Saul Leiter, Self Portrait with Inez, c. 1947, from “In My Room.” Courtesy of Steidl.

In No Great Rush shows Leiter in the last year of his life in his East Village home. His cozy apartment is stacked with boxes of photo paper and film, canvasses, and prints. “There’s a certain kind of charm and comfort in disorder that not everyone appreciates,” he said of his scattered archive. Following his death, his assistant, Anders Goldfarb, and gallery representative Margrit Erb sorted through his belongings, turning up a treasure trove of more than 250,000 negatives and slides.

They also found Leiter’s written exchanges with Arbus, Henri Cartier-BressonHenri Cartier-BressonFrench, 1908–2004FollowUpon picking up a Leica camera in the early 1930s, Henri Cartier-Bresson fell in love with the spontaneity of photography and went on to pioneer …, and Irving Penn, the last of whom wrote Leiter about his book Early Color. According to Genevieve Fussell of The New Yorker, Leiter appreciated Penn’s praise of the monograph.

The wider praise that has followed Leiter’s death would likely have perplexed him. “I’m not carried away by the greatness of Mr. Leiter. He’s a minor figure and does not deserve to have a story about him,” he said, reflecting on his own renown, in the first scene of In No Great Hurry. “On the other hand, what can you do?”