Photographer Profile ~ Saul Leiter

Saul Leiter (born 1923) is an American photographer and painter whose early work in the 1940s and 1950s was an important contribution to what came to be recognized as The New York School.

Saul Leiter was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His father was a well known Talmud scholar and Saul studied to become a Rabbi. At age 23, however, he left theology school and moved to New York City to become an artist. He had developed an early interest in painting and was fortunate to meet the Abstract Expressionist painter Richard Pousette-Dart. Pousette-Dart and W. Eugene Smith encouraged Saul to pursue photography and he was soon experimenting with a 35 mm Leica. He began associating with other contemporary photographers such as Robert Frank and Diane Arbus and helped form what Jane Livingston has termed The New York School of photographers during the 1940s and 1950s.

Leiter’s earliest black and white photographs show an extraordinary affinity for the medium, and by 1948 he began to experiment in color. 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.

Leiter has made an enormous and unique contribution to photography. His abstracted forms and radically innovative compositions have a painterly quality that stands out among the work of his New York School contemporaries. Perhaps this is because Leiter has continued through the years to work as both a photographer and painter. His painterly sensibility reaches its fruition in his painted photographs of nudes on which he has actually applied layers of gouache and watercolor.


Martin Harrison, author of "Saul Leiter Early Color" writes, "Leiter’s sensibility…placed him outside the visceral confrontations with urban anxiety associated with photographers such as Robert Frank or William Klein. Instead, for him the camera provided an alternate way of seeing, of framing events and interpreting reality. He sought out moments of quiet humanity in the Manhattan maelstrom, forging a unique urban pastoral from the most unlikely of circumstances."

© Saul Leiter ~ Self Portrait

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