Saul Leiter Street Photography

Saul Leiter – A Master of Color Photography

 All photographs © Saul Leiter

When exploring the work of Saul Leiter and learning about his thoughts on photography, an aspect that shines through is that this was the work of a man who enjoyed photography for photography’s sake. You can feel it in his work, a calm enjoyment for the hidden beauty in the world.

This is simultaneously inspiring and relaxing. Looking through his work, cutting out all the distractions, you can feel the medium at its purest.

Saul Leiter Street Photography

“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.”

– Saul Leiter

Photography seemed to be an escape for Leiter. Born in Pittsburgh in 1923, his father was a well-known rabbi and Talmudic scholar, and Leiter was encouraged to become a rabbi as well. He left theology school and at 23 moved to New York to pursue painting.

Saul Leiter Street Photography

Leiter was introduced to photography by the Expressionist painter, Richard Pousette-Dart, and while he began in black and white, in the 1950s he started to experiment with color photography at the time when the medium was in its early stages. With no formal training, he began exploring the streets of New York.

“My family was very unhappy about my becoming a photographer – profoundly and deeply unhappy.”

– Saul Leiter

“My father thought photography was done by lowlifes.”

– Saul Leiter

Saul Leiter Street Photography

Leiter’s work was noticed by Edward Steichen, who included him in two MoMA shows in the 1950s. However, after that, Leiter’s work faded from view. While he became a successful fashion photographer, he continued to explore the streets of New York, printing some of his black and white photographs, but putting his color slides into boxes.

“I spent a great deal of my life being ignored. I was always very happy that way. Being ignored is a great privilege. That is how I think I learned to see what others do not see and to react to situations differently. I simply looked at the world, not really prepared for anything.”

– Saul Leiter

Saul Leiter Street Photography

While he worked with a variety of lenses, Leiter was well known for often using a telephoto perspective, and particularly a 150mm lens. This is not a focal length that many street photographers use, but he used it to create a compressed view that made his work feel painterly.

Leiter used many other strategies to enhance painterly look and feel, including shooting in the rain and snow, photographing through windows, including reflections, and combining many elements at different depths, often bringing out strong colors in out-of-focus foreground elements. Leiter even purchased expired color film, which would allow for surprise color shifts.

Saul Leiter Street Photography

“Perfection is not something I admire. A touch of confusion is a desirable ingredient.”

– Saul Leiter

“I like it when one is not certain what one sees. When we do not know why the photographer has taken a picture and when we do not know why we are looking at it, all of a sudden we discover something that we start seeing. I like this confusion.”

– Saul Leiter

Saul Leiter Street Photography

It was not until the 1990s that Leiter began to look back through his color work and start making prints, and in 2006 with the help of historian Martin Harrison and the Howard Greenberg Gallery, they released Saul Leiter: Early Color with Steidl books in Germany. The book became an immediate sensation and thrust the photographer into the limelight, something he had previously avoided. In 2012, a documentary In No Great Hurry – 13 Lessons in Life with Saul Leiter was released. Leiter passed away in 2013.

“I’ve never been overwhelmed with a desire to become famous. It’s not that I didn’t want to have my work appreciated, but for some reason – maybe it’s because my father disapproved of almost everything I did – in some secret place in my being was a desire to avoid success.”

– Saul Leiter

“In order to build a career and to be successful, one has to be determined. One has to be ambitious. I much prefer to drink coffee, listen to music, and to paint when I feel like it.”

– Saul Leiter

His late fame and his life story aside, getting lost in the work seemed to be the crux of his focus and enjoyment in photography. As a viewer, this philosophy has made it just as easy for us to relax with, and get lost in his work.

Saul Leiter Street Photography

Saul Leiter Quotes

“When I am listening to Vivaldi or Japanese music or making spaghetti at 3 in the morning and realize that I don’t have the proper sauce for it, fame is of no use.”

– Saul Leiter

“I have been told that some of my photographs maybe indicate that I am a painter.”

– Saul Leiter

Saul Leiter Street Photography

“Photography is about finding things. And painting is different – it’s about making something.”

– Saul Leiter

“There are the things that are out in the open, and there are the things that are hidden. The real world has more to do with what is hidden.”

– Saul Leiter

Saul Leiter Street Photography

“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.”

– Saul Leiter

“A window covered with raindrops interests me more than a photograph of a famous person.”

– Saul Leiter

“I’m sometimes mystified by people who keep diaries. I never thought of my existence as being that important.”

– Saul Leiter

Saul Leiter Street Photography

“I like the Zen artists: they’d do some work, and then they’d stop for a while.”

– Saul Leiter

“What makes anyone think that I’m any good?”

– Saul Leiter

View Saul Leiter’s Work here.

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7 thoughts on “Saul Leiter – A Master of Color Photography”

  1. I have several of Saul Leiter’s books hidden somewhere in my collection, which I haven’t looked at lately. This post was a wonderful reminder of the beauty of his work. Thank you. Happy holiday to you and your family.

    Joanne Doyle

  2. Thank you for Saul Leiter article, fantastic, introduced me photography I have never seen before! Good to see you back James!

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