Saul Leiter made 60 years of photography within a couple block radius of his apartment.
by Viktor Bezic·
Saul Leiter grew up in a religious family in Pittsburgh. His father was a Rabbi and a Talmudic scholar, it was anticipated that the young Saul Leiter would follow in his father’s footsteps and become a Rabbi. He’d attend theology school, but his pull toward art kept getting stronger. Leiter had a deep interest in painting, specifically abstract expressionism. Leiter would drop out of theology school against his family’s wishes, pack up and move to New York at the age of 23. He’d become friends with the abstract expressionist painter Richard Pousette-Dart. Poussette-Dart was experimenting with photography, and Leiter decided to switch mediums and befriend other photographers such as the photojournalist W. Eugene Smith. He would continue to paint throughout his career. It was no longer his primary or sole medium of expression (1).
The interesting angle Leiter took with his photography was that he’d shoot street photography with a zoom lens. It would create a multilayered abstract effect. As a viewer looking at the photography, it was hard to place yourself in the scene. His pictures would have a disorienting effect. In a sense, he applied his feel for painting abstract compositions to photography. He took pictures of everyday scenes of daily life in New York. But more quiet and subdued scenes. According to Leiter, “I was more interested in raindrops on a window than I was in famous people.”
Although he hung out with a lot of notable photographers, such as Diane Airbus and Robert Frank, he never had any notoriety himself partly because he did commercial photography alongside his other work (2). This included frequent collaborations with Esquire and Harper’s Bazaar. Somehow it made him less of a photographer in the art establishment's eyes. To Leiter, his approach to the work was the same. Whether for art or commerce, his goal was to make images he liked and stood behind (3). This didn’t bother him as long as he could keep working within his craft, “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 learnt to see what others do not see and react to situations differently. I simply looked at the world, not really prepared for anything (4).”
Leiter’s most substantial body of work over that he produced over 60 years happened within a couple blocks of his apartment. This is an impressive exercise in constraints especially in today’s Instagram era of photography. He didn’t travel to popular locales or feel the need to leave the block to hunt for images. He didn’t find pictures. He literally made with his painterly eye for color and composition. The other lesson. Leiter never lost focus of what he was trying to achieve. As Steven Pressfield describes in The Artists Journey, “The artist mines the same vein over and over. He just digs deeper over time (5).” He aspired to be unimportant, and his pursuit of beauty was his life focus. As Leiter described, “I enjoy capturing certain moments. I don’t always get what I want.“ He was also frugal with his resources. If film overheated or was outdated, he’d still experiment with it to see what kind of effects they’d produce instead of throwing the film away.
He was ‘discovered’ in 2006 at the age of 82 with the publication of a book, Early Color. This spawned subsequent books, solo gallery shows and a documentary before his passing in 2013. His work is housed in a dozen public collections such as the Art Institute of Chicago and the Whitney Museum (6). Leiter is considered to be one of the greatest street photographers of our era.
1. “Saul Leiter.” Howard Greenberg Gallery, www.howardgreenberg.com/artists/saul-leiter.
2. “Saul Leiter.” Widewalls, www.widewalls.ch/artist/saul-leiter/.
3. Leach, Thomas, director. In No Great Hurry: 13 Lessons in Life with Saul Leiter. Cinedigm, 2014.
4. Casper, Jim. “Saul Leiter: 1950–60s Color and Black-and-White — Photographs by Saul Leiter.” LensCulture, Hatje Cantz, www.lensculture.com/articles/saul-leiter-saul-leiter-1950-60s-color-and-black-and-white.
5. Pressfield, Steven. The Artist’s Journey: the Wake of the Hero’s Journey and the Lifelong Pursuit of Meaning. Black Irish Entertainment LLC, 2018.
6. “Saul Leiter.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 8 June 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saul_Leiter.