Saul Leiter (1923 – 2013)

Saul Leiter who died yesterday was a photographer who became better known in his eighties than he had been earlier in his life, as it was only in his seventies that he took many of his old 35mm Kodachromes taken on the streets out of their boxes and made the prints which showed his colour work from the 1950s and 60s, an age before colour photography became respectable to the art world.

Of course he wasn’t completely unknown before. He’d exhibited paintings on walls along with some very well-known artists, worked as a fashion photographer for Harper’s Bazaar, and even had his black and white photographs exhibited in MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) when Edward Steichen was at the helm.

Back in 2006, his show ‘Saul Leiter: Early Colour’ attracted a great deal of favourable critical comment, and at the time I noted:

Currently on show until 21 Jan 2006 at the Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York is Saul Leiter: Early Color. For a real photographic treat go to the gallery web site and look through the 42 superb images dating from 1948-60, mainly taken in New York, but also from Rome, Venice and Paris. Despite the title of the show, the site includes 12 fine black and white pictures.

Leiter, born 1923, the son of a distinguished Talmudic scholar, began to study at Cleveland Theological College before leaving for New York to work as a painter. There he met Abstract Expressionist painter, Richard Pousette-Dart, who was also working with photography, and he also began taking pictures, working with 35mm colour on the streets of New York in the late 1940s.

Colour was alive and well in photography long before its discovery by the art world as ‘new color’ in the 1970s with the work of William Eggleston, Stephen Shore and others.

(Links updated – the Howard Greenberg gallery link is to his artist page there rather than the 2006 show and is not the identical selection and there are now only 39 works.)

One of the nicest current pieces I’ve seen about him is on Faded and Blurred, but you can also see selections of his work on Retronaut, Time Lightbox, Jackson Fine Art, Gallery 51, InPublic and of course Lens Culture, as well as watch the trailer for the film about him, ‘In No Great Hurry.’

As he says in the opening moments of the trailer, “There have always been people who liked color, its not as if I was the only person“, but although there certainly were others – such as Helen Levitt and possibly others currently unknown whose work may yet come to light – his work is permeated by a remarkable lyricism which apparently continued unabated even after he switched to digital in recent years.

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