Obituary: Saul Leiter, Legendary Color Photography Artist

by David Walker

©Saul Leiter, courtesy gallery FIFTY ONE, Antwerp

Artist Saul Leiter, who spent decades working in relative obscurity before his talents as a pioneering color photographer came to light late in his life, died Tuesday night in New York City. He was 89 years old.

An unassuming man who shunned attention, Leiter photographed on the streets of New York, mostly within a  few blocks of his East Village apartment. With their rich layering and swaths of beautiful color, Leiter's images induced moments of quietude and contemplation amid the bustle and chaos of New York City street life.

"There are an awful lot of reflections and overlapping planes Saul sees, which if he'd moved another inch would have looked all different," Lisa Hostetler, who was recently appointed director of photography at the George Eastman House, told PDN in 2006. "His photographs give you a sense of everybody's personal perspective and shows that the world is fragile. He points it out in a trenchant way."

Leiter began shooting with color film in 1948,  more than two decades before color photography gained acceptance in the art world through the work of William Eggleston and others. 

"The idea that color was inferior is not something that I was burdened with," he told PDN contributor Jane Gottlieb in a 2006 interview. (See "In Living Color," our profile of Leiter in the January, 2007 print edition of PDN.)

Although Edward Steichen exhibited Leiter's black and white photographs at the Museum of Modern Art in 1953, and his early color work appeared around the same time in an exhibition at the Artists' Club, Leiter was practically unknown in the art world until the 1990s.

He told various interviewers that he just wasn't career-minded; he was happy to be ignored and spend his days painting, drinking coffee, and thinking and talking about art with friends, and with his partner of more than 40 years, artist Soames Bantry, who died in 2002.

"When no one was very interested in my color, she kept reminding me of how good it was," he told PDN in 2006.

But Leiter didn't make it easy for anyone else to take an interest in his work. He sat on his photographs for years, shooting color slides that he simply stored away in boxes, or didn't even process until the 1990s.

Hostetler and gallerist Howard Greenberg saw Leiter's black and white work in 1993, at a Corcoran Gallery exhibition of New York School photography. Afterwards, Leiter had two exhibitions at Greenberg Gallery. Five years later, around 1998, Letier walked into the the gallery with bags full of color slides 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.

 The gallery mounted an exhibition of the work in 2005 to coincide with the publication, by Steidl, of Saul Leiter: Early Color 1948-1960. Leiter has published several other books since, including Saul Leiter (Steidl, 2008), Colors (Idpure Editions, 2011) and Saul Leiter (Kehrer Verlag, 2012).

The son of a Talmudic scholar, Leiter was born in Pittsburgh in 1923. He took up painting when he was young, eventually studied to become a rabbi, but then left seminary in 1946 to pursue a career as a painter in New York City. Leiter picked up a camera soon afterwards, and made a living as a fashion photographer, shooting for Harper's Bazaar, Esquire, Elle and British Vogue.

"One cannot say that I was successful but there was enough work to keep me busy," he wrote in the introduction of Saul Leiter, his 2008 book published by Steidl.  "I was constantly aware that those who hired me would have preferred to work with a star such as Avedon. But it didn't matter. I had work and I made a living. At the same time, I took my own photographs."

His career as a fashion photographer wound down in the 1980s. "He had his own way and didn’t like to follow layouts. He wanted to take his picture," former assistant Tony Cenicola, who is now a New York Times photographer, wrote in a remembrance posted on Lens Blog yesterday. 

When the accolades for Leiter's personal work finally came late in his life, he took it with his usual modesty and urge to deflect attention. "It is very nice to have the work recognized," he told PDN in 2006. "To put it quite simply, if it was work that someone else did, I would think it deserves some attention." 

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