A pioneer of color photography

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

Saul Leiter’s photograph titled ‘Taxi’ (photo credit: SAUL LEITER FOUNDATION)
Saul Leiter’s photograph titled ‘Taxi’
The Jewish-American painter and photographer Saul Leiter (1923-2013) has only in recent years received due recognition as one of the outstanding figures in post-war photography, and as one of the great pioneers of color photography.
This can perhaps be attributed to Leiter seeing himself for a long time mainly as a painter. The Jewish Community Center in Munich recently exhibited a retrospective on Leiter’s photography, and on September 15 screened the film “In No Great Hurry: 13 Lessons in Life with Saul Leiter” by Tomas Leach.
Born in 1923 in Pittsburgh the son of an eminent rabbi, Saul Leiter discovered his passion for art at an early age, and began painting already as a teenager. His father, who had always pinned his hopes on his son eventually following him in the family tradition as a rabbi, did not support him. Unlike his father, his mother was appreciative of his passion in art. In 1935 she gave her son a Detrola camera, and he began photographing sporadically.
In 1946 when he was 23, he left the theological college he was attending in Cleveland and moved to New York City to pursue painting, settling in the East Village, the center of Expressionism.
Shortly after his arrival he met the Abstract Expressionist painter Richard Poussette-Dart, who influenced his interest in photography and exhibited alongside Abstract Expressionists like Willem de Kooning. Leiter’s friendship with Poussette-Dart, and soon after with W. Eugene Smith, along with the photography exhibitions he saw in New York – particularly Henri Cartier-Bresson’s at the Museum of Modern Art in 1947 – inspired him to take black and white photographs.
Like Robert Frank or Helen Levitt, Leiter also found his motifs on the streets of New York, but at the same time was visibly interested in abstraction. By 1948 Leiter had begun to experiment in color, largely using Kodachrome 35mm film past its sell-by date. His main subjects were street scenes and his small circle of friends.
Edward Streichen was one of the first to discover Leiter’s photography, and included his black-and-white pictures in the exhibition “Always the Young Strangers” at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1953. Streichen also included 20 of Leiter’s color photographs in his slide talk “Experimental Photography in Color” at the MoMA in 1957.
Back then, color photography was regarded as “low art,” fit only for advertisements, but starting in 1958, art director Henry Wolf published Leiter’s color fashion work in Esquire and later in Harper’s Bazaar.
“Curiosity is the cheapest thing,” was one of his first sentences during a talk with Brigitte Woischnik, co-curator of the retrospective. Woischnik was fortunate to meet Saul Leiter in person in his apartment in New York. “This sentence is one of his guiding themes.”
In describing Leiter, Woischnik said “curiosity paired with passion formed Saul’s sensitive perception and trained his eye, strolling day after day through his neighborhood, the East Village, photographing common human figures who attracted his attention.”
Woischnik pauses for a moment. “Saul Leiter was scintillatingly witty, decidedly eccentric and a good many times impish. His sense of humor ranged from puerile humor to sarcasm. Saul was impressively smart – he used to answer questions elliptically, and as a result it wasn’t you who interviewed him, it was him who interviewed you.”
Leiter associated himself with only a few people – in his small circle of friends were Eugene Smith and Diane Arbus, and American photojournalist and gallery owner Howard Greenberg.
Leiter continued to work primarily as a fashion photographer for the next 20 years, and was published in Show, Elle, British Vogue, Queen, and Nova.
Although he had a number of complicated relationships with women, he spent most of his life with Soames Bantry. She had briefly been a fashion model, which is how the two met. They shared a passion for art but had an unusual domestic setup: Saul lived in one apartment in their building and Soames lived downstairs in another. Saul would visit her regularly, but they rarely ate together. She was also a painter. One of Saul’s biggest regrets is that her work had not received the recognition that in his opinion it deserves. Soames died in 2002.
In 1981 Leiter was faced with financial difficulties that forced the closure of his Fifth Avenue studio. For the next two decades Leiter lived and worked virtually unknown, and fell into oblivion.
In 2006, with the help of the art historian Martin Harrison and Howard Greenberg Gallery, the groundbreaking monograph “Saul Leiter: Early Color” was published by Gerhard Steidl in Germany.
What Leiter called his “little book” became an overnight sensation with worldwide distribution, and firmly established the artist as an early pioneer in the history of color photography.
“I’m not immersed in self-admiration,” said Leiter. “When I’m listening to Vivaldi or Japanese music or making a spaghetti at three in the morning and realize that I don’t have the proper sauce for it, fame is of no use.”
In 2006, the Milwaukee Museum of Art held the first US museum show of Leiter’s photographs. In 2008, Leiter traveled to Paris for his first European exhibition, at the Foundation Henri Cartier-Bresson. The same year, Leiter had his first painting exhibition in 30 years at Knoeller Gallery in New York. In 2012 he was the subject of Tomas Leach’s highly acclaimed documentary “In No Great Hurry – 13 Lessons in Life with Saul Leiter,” which continues to be shown at film festivals throughout the US, Europe, and Japan.
Leiter was a promenader – he spent over half of his life “wandering” around his home district, the East Village, photographing everything that interested him as he walked by. And he was truly interested in everything.
In the film portrait “In No Great Hurry,” Leiter says about himself, “I’m used to going out with my camera, but I don’t know what I’m going to get. I enjoy what I’m doing. I usually go out looking for things and I tend to react to what I found – everything is suitable to be photographed. A window with raindrops interests me more than a photograph of a famous person. Sometimes I didn’t like it at the time when I did it, and only later did it seem to me that it had merit. It was something that had interested me.”
Thanks to Margit Erb, founder and director of the Saul Leiter Foundation, this unique artistic lifework has been saved for the future. In her years as a sales associate at the Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York, she assisted Saul Leiter in his East Village studio every Friday. Today she still works in Leiter’s studio, managing his vast archive along with her husband, Michael Parillo. Erb co-produced “In No Great Hurry” in 2013, and has helped publish six books on the artist since his passing at his East Village home at 86 on November 26, 2013.
Rolf Nobel, a well-respected German photographer himself, co-founder and member of the first executive committee of the photojournalist organization Freelens, describes Leiter’s color street photography as painting-turned-photography.
Leiter made an enormous and unique contribution to photography with a highly prolific period in New York in the 1950s. His abstract forms and radically innovative compositions have a painting quality that stands out among the work of his New York School contemporaries. His earliest photographs in black-and-white and color show an extraordinary affinity for the medium. Today, his color photographs of poetic beauty capture ordinary people of New York City’s East Village and serve as an outstanding monument to him and his work.
Negotiations are under way to bring the Saul Leiter retrospective to Tel Aviv next year. For more information see www.versicherungskammer-kulturstiftung.de or www.ikg-m.de/ikg/kontakt/