Saul Leiter :: Photographer (American)

Saul Leiter

Saul Leiter, 2008 by Pierre Belhassen

Born: December 3, 1923 – Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Died: November 26, 2013 – New York City (age 89)

Saul Leiter was an American photographer and member of the New York school of photographers in the mid-twentieth century. Leiter made a living as a freelance fashion photographer beginning in the late 1950’s and his work was published in Elle, British Vogue, Nova, Esquire and Harper’s Bazaar.

Leiter’s career as a commercial photographer peaked in the 1960’s. By the late 1970’s he experienced periods of poverty, but he continued to create an impressive collection of personal work that included paintings as well as color and black and white photography of New York street scenes and candid photographs of his circle of friends. Fame and notoriety didn’t come until the late 1990’s thanks to a discovery of his work by gallery owner Howard Greenberg. The partnership with Howard Greenberg Gallery yielded several major monographs of his work. Early Color was published by Steidl in 2006, Saul Leiter by Thames & Hudson in 2008 and Early Black and White by Steidl in 2008. These publications led to a number of exhibitions that finally launched Saul to the much deserved recognition that he has today.


Saul Leiter was born on December 3, 1923 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His father was an Orthodox Rabbi and noted Talmudic scholar who had similar ambitions for Saul as a boy. By the age of 12, Saul was studying theology himself, following the in the family rabbinical tradition and he eventually made his way to theology school in Cleveland. However, by this time Saul was teaching himself how to paint and his passion for art was becoming increasingly more serious. Influenced by Kandinsky, Picasso, Mattise, Degas, Bonnard and Vuillard, Leiter was making abstract paintings and showing them locally. By 1945, Leiter was showing at the Outlines Gallery in Pittsburg and sold one of his works to John Cage and Merce Cunningham. Leiter was still living with his parents in a situation increasingly becoming more complex due to his father’s disapproval of Saul’s art related pursuits. After a local Jewish paper posted an announcement of Saul’s second solo exhibition, his father actually wept, expressing his shame of Saul. It finally became obvious to Saul that his family would never approve of his art career. His situation at home had become too much. In 1946, Saul boarded a bus at midnight and left his theology training for New York to become an artist.

Saul Leiter

Taxi (1957)

After arriving in New York, Saul became friends with Abstract Expressionist painter/photographer Richard Pousette-Dart and photographer W Eugene Smith. It was Pousette-Dart and Smith’s encouragement that led Saul to start pursuing his growing interest in photography. In just a few years, Saul’s talents were maturing both as a painter and as a photographer. As a painter, he exhibited in shows along side Jackson Pollack, William DeKooning and Philip Guston. As a photographer his work was publicly shown along side his friends Diane Arbus and Robert Frank.

By 1953, Edward Steichen (then curator of photography at MoMA) featured 25 of Saul’s photographs in an exhibition at MoMA titled, Always the Young Stranger. The same year, Leiter opened a studio on Bleeker St for portrait, fashion and advertising photography. Saul began to have a run of commercial success finding work with popular fashion magazines. Leiter eventually caught the eye of art director Henry Wolf who, by the late 50’s, started giving Saul assignments for Esquire and Harper’s Bazaar.

By the late 1970’s however, Saul’s career was beginning to fade. Eventually he moved to the East Village and by the 1980’s was forced to start selling his personal collection of paintings and books to make ends meet. Sadly, Leiter’s reputation had faded into obscurity. Leiter himself admitted the reasons were complicated as much of it tied in to his integrity and preference of solitude as an artist mixed with an indifference to taking things as seriously as he should[1].

Tony Cenicola (Saul’s former assistant and current New York Times staff photographer) stated:

(Saul) was down to one or two clients. There was a younger crowd of fashion photographers coming in and Saul was getting difficult to work with. He had his own way and didn’t want to follow layouts. He wanted to take his picture. It was occasional jobs that I would assist him on, I would set up lights, meter and bracket for him. I was in charge of fixing things, too, in his apartment. He was totally inept at anything other than art.[2]”

Following over a decade of hard times, Saul’s career would change in an unprecedented way in 1993. Howard Greenberg and his then registrar Lisa Hostetler (Hostetler is now a renowned photography curator) saw Leiter’s black and white work in a group exhibition of New York photographers at Corcoran Gallery in 1993. They contacted Saul which led to two exhibitions at Howard Greenberg Gallery which began to bring Leiter’s work back to the public eye.

Then, in 1998, Leiter walked into Howard Greenberg’s gallery with bags full of color slides which he’d never shown to anyone.

You literally had to blow dust off of them, they’d been sitting in a box for 50 years–one beautiful picture after another,” Greenberg told PDN in 2006. [3]

This led to an exhibition of early color work in 2005 at Greenberg followed by Early Color published the following year by Steidl. The book was an enormous success. Steidl followed up with Early Black and White, a 2 volume collection of Leiter’s personal black and white work. The book is divided into 2 volumes: I. Interior and II. Exterior.

Leiter was a brilliant artist with a rare talent that crossed both painting and photography. His work is widely known today thanks to his rediscovery in the early 1990’s; a wonderful and well deserved recognition.

Shortly before his death in 2013, director Tomas Leach started working with Saul on a biographical documentary film. In No Great Hurry: 13 Lessons in Life with Saul Leiter was released in 2014. It was shown at film festivals throughout the United States and Europe and is currently available to view online.

Leiter died in New York on November 26, 2013. He was 89.

From the New York Times:

I am not immersed in self-admiration,” he said. “When I am listening to Vivaldi or Japanese music or making spaghetti at 3 in the morning and realize that I don’t have the proper sauce for it, fame is of no use.

Letier’s works are represented today by Howard Greenberg Gallery


Selected Works

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Early Color
Early Black and White
Saul Leiter
Painted Nudes
Saul Leiter: Colors
In No Great Hurry (DVD)


In No Great Hurry: 13 Lessons in Life with Saul Leiter


Who Influenced Saul Leiter?
Saul Leiter :: The Art of Photography
Saul Leiter :: Early Black and White
Saul Leiter in Conversation with Vince Aletti

Solo Exhibitions

1944: Ten Thirty Gallery, Cleveland
1945: The Outlines Gallery, Pittsburgh
1947: Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, OH
1950s: Tanager Gallery, New York.
1954: Emerging Talent. Curated by Clement Greenberg. Samuel Koontz Gallery, New York
1972: Midtown Y, New York
1984: Gallery Lafayette, New York
1985: Gallery Lafayette, New York
1993: Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York
1994: Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York
1997: Saul Leiter, In Color. Martha Schneider Gallery, Chicago
1997: Saul Leiter, In Color. Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York
2004: Saul Leiter, In Color. Staton Greenberg Gallery, Santa Barbara
2005: Saul Leiter, Early Color. Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York
2006: The Fashion Photographs of Saul Leiter, Festival of Fashion Photography, Hyères, France
2006: Saul Leiter, Color, Fifty One Fine Art Photography, Antwerp
2006: In Living Color, Photographs by Saul Leiter, Milwaukee Art Museum
2007: Saul Leiter, Early Color, University of Maine Museum of Art, Bangor
2008: Saul Leiter, Galerie Camera Obscura, Paris
2008: Saul Leiter, Faggionato Fine Arts, London
2008: Saul Leiter, Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York
2008: Saul Leiter, Jackson Fine Art, Atlanta
2008: Saul Leiter, Galleria C arla Sozzani, Milan
2008: Saul Leiter, Foundation Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paris
2009: Saul Leiter, Fifty One Fine Art Photography, Antwerp
2010: Saul Leiter, Mois de la Foto, Paris
2011: Saul Leiter, New York Reflections, Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam
2011: Saul Leiter, Photographs and works on paper, Fifty One Fine Art Photography, Antwerp
2012: Saul Leiter, Retrospective, Deichtorhallen Hamburg
2013: Saul Leiter, Here’s more, why not, Fifty One Fine Art Photography, Antwerp
2013: Saul Leiter, Black & white, Fifty One Fine Art Photography, Antwerp
2013: Saul Leiter, Kunst Haus Wien
2015: Homage to Saul Leiter, Fifty One gallery, Antwerp

Group Exhibitions

1947: Abstract and Surrealist Art. Art Institute of Chicago
1953: Always the Young Stranger. Museum of Modern Art, New York
1953: Contemporary Photography. Tokyo Museum, Tokyo
1958: Photographs from the Museum Collection. Museum of Modern Art, New York
1980: Fashion Photographers. Hastings/Rinhart Galleries, New York
1991: Appearances: Fashion Photography Since 1945. Victoria and Albert Museum, London
1994: The New York School. Dean Jensen Gallery, Milwaukee
1995: By Night. Cartier Foundation, Paris
1996: Delirium. Ricco/Maresca Gallery, New York
1998: Look at Me, Fashion and Photography in Britain 1960 to the Present, British Council European Touring Exhibition
2002: The Whitney Museum of American Art, 27 June 27 – 22 September 2002
2002: Visions from America: Photographs from the Whitney Museum of American Art 1940-2001
2002: New York Scene: Ted Croner, Sid Grossman, Saul Leiter and Leon Levinstein. Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York
2002: New York: Capital of Photography. The Jewish Museum, New York
2006: The Streets of New York, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
2006: Color Photography, Amon Carter Museum, Ft Worth, TX
2007: When Color Was New, Art Institute of Chicago
2007: Mapping the City. Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam
2007: Pieces of a City. Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York

Museum Collections

Addison Gallery of American Art
Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, TX
Art Institute of Chicago
Milwaukee Art Museum
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Museum of Modern Art, New York
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
St. Louis Art Museum, St. Louis, MO
Victoria & Albert Museum, London
Whitney Museum of American Arts, New York