SANTA MONICA, CA.- A pioneer of early color photography, Saul Leiter has been shooting color pictures obsessively since the 1940s. Largely self-taught, he developed an abstract, lyrical form of photography centering on radically toned representations of metropolitan scenes during the heyday of black and white photography, when relatively few photographs other than those intended for reproduction in magazines or as advertisements were made in color. By compiling an extensive body of work in color during the mediums infancy the artist has made a significant contribution to its history and is noted as one of the outstanding figures in post-war photography.
Leiter was born in Pittsburgh in 1923, the son of an internationally renowned Talmudic scholar. Though his family wanted Saul to follow in his fathers footsteps and become a Rabbi, at the age of 23 he left theology school and set off for New York on a midnight bus with dreams of becoming a painter. The city offered him a fresh start, removed from his Jewish Orthodox upbringing, and ultimately a lifetime of visual inspiration. It was here that he met Richard Pousette-Dart, one of the younger New York Abstract Expressionists, who introduced him to experimental large-format photographic prints and ultimately inspired Leiters interest in the camera as an artistic tool. From the start, Leiters affinity for Abstract Expressionism and color field painting informed his photographic vision, and while his subjects were the city streets and the often unyielding urban visual experience of Manhattan, the poetic underpinnings of his approach; the spare geometry, the semi-abstract, improvisational layering and fragmentation of space, and especially his innovative combinations of color, set him apart from his contemporaries in The New York School like Robert Frank and William Klein, for example. By exploiting the color distortions inherent in outdated film stock and embracing the color rendition in emulsions available from small manufacturers Leiter created an experimental style, influenced as much by the avant-garde post-war painters whom he admired, as the urban environment in which he dwelt. Art critic Roberta Smith wrote in 2005:
'Mr. Leiter was a photographer less of people than of perception itself. His painter's instincts served him well in his emphasis on surface, spatial ambiguity and a lush, carefully calibrated palette. But the abstract allure of his work doesn't rely on soft focus, a persistent, often irritating photographic ploy, or the stark isolation of details, in the manner of Aaron Siskind or early Harry Callahan. Instead, Mr. Leiter captured the passing illusions of everyday life with a precision that might almost seem scientific, if it weren't so poetically resonant and visually layered.'
Leiters first exhibition of color photography was held in the 1950s at the Artists Club, a meeting place for many of the Abstract Expressionists at the time. Then, in the late 1950s the art director Henry Wolf published his color fashion work in Esquire and later in Harpers Bazaar. Leiter continued to work in the fashion world for the next twenty years for such publications as Elle, and British Vogue. And although Edward Steichen included a group of Leiters photographs in the 1953 exhibition Always the Young Strangers at the Museum of Modern Art, as well as twenty of his color images in the MoMA conference Experimental Photography in Color in 1957, for 40 years following, Leiters noncommercial work remained virtually unknown to the wider art world. Since the publication of his monograph, Early Color, by Steidl in 2006, however, Leiter's photography has experienced a surge of popularity and numerous exhibitions have followed, beginning with the artists first major retrospective at the Milwaukee Museum of Art. His work has also been the subject of solo shows at the Cartier Foundation, Paris; Forma Foundation for Photography, Milan; and Deichtorhallen, Hamburg.
Saul Leiter's photographs are featured in the book The New York School: Photographs 1936-1963 by Jane Livingston, Appearances: Fashion Photography Since 1945 by Martin Harrison and most recently, Saul Leiter, a catalogue published to accompany the artists 2012 retrospective at the House of Photography in Hamburg. His work is found in the permanent collections of The Museum of Modern Art, New York; The Whitney Museum of American Art; The Art Institute of Chicago; The Baltimore Museum of Art; the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; The Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam and many other public and private collections.
The artist currently lives and works in New York City.