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Saul Leiter: Pioneer of Color Street Photography

American Photographer

Saul Leiter

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Saul Leiter – Wikipedia

Saul Leiter [1923 – 2013] was an American photographer and painter renowned for his early use of color photography and his unique, abstract views of the urban landscape.

Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Leiter initially pursued a career in theology before moving to New York City in the 1940s to follow his passion for art and photography.

In a time when black and white photography was the norm, Leiter experimented with color film, capturing the streets of New York in a way that was ahead of his time.

His work, characterized by its layered compositions, subtle use of color, and often through reflections and windows, offers a quiet, contemplative look at city life.

Despite his significant contributions to photography, Leiter remained relatively unknown until later in his life, when his work finally received the recognition it deserved. His poetic approach to the everyday influenced a new generation of photographers.

Read the full Biography below.

Photography Quotes From Saul Leiter

Inspirational photography quote by Willy Ronis overlaid on an image with a camera lens in the background.
Inspirational quote by Willy Ronis on a photography-themed background with attribution to Joe Edelman, photographer/photo educator.
Inspirational quote on photography by Willy Ronis, presented on a promotional graphic by Joe Edelman.
📸 Did you know?
Saul Leiter could have been a rabbi like his father before him, but he chose to pursue painting and photography instead, moving to New York City at the age of 23.

Videos about Saul Leiter

📸 Did you know?
He often used outdated Kodachrome film for his photographs, which contributed to the unique, soft color palette that became a hallmark of his style.

Photography Books: Saul Leiter

Cover of a book featuring a photograph by Saul Leiter with a partial view through a taxi window.
Vintage cars on a rainy street with a pedestrian crossing, featuring the title "The Unseen" by Saul Leiter.
Blurry figure seen through frosted glass with text 'forever soul letters' by Saul Leiter and 'thames & hudson' printed over the image.
📸 Did you know?
Leiter was a remarkably private individual and didn’t seek fame or recognition for his work; as a result, his contributions to color photography and the New York School of photographers were largely unrecognized until the 1990s.

Biography of Saul Leiter

Early Life and Artistic Beginnings

Saul Leiter was born on December 3, 1923, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, into an Orthodox Jewish family. 

His father, a well-known Talmud scholar, expected Saul to follow in his religious footsteps, but Leiter was drawn to the arts from a young age. 

His initial artistic endeavors were in painting, a passion he would continue alongside his photography throughout his life. 

In his late teens, Leiter moved to Cleveland, where he met the Abstract Expressionist painter Richard Pousette-Dart, who encouraged him to pursue photography.

Move to New York and Photography Career

In 1946, Leiter moved to New York City, immersing himself in the vibrant artistic community of the East Village. It was here that he began to explore photography seriously, inspired by the dynamism and complexity of city life. 

Leiter’s early work in black and white was influenced by Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment,” but he soon began experimenting with color film, a medium then largely reserved for commercial and amateur work.

Pioneering Color Photography

By the 1950s, Leiter had emerged as one of the early pioneers of color photography. His work, characterized by its abstract compositions, subtle use of color, and intimate portrayal of street scenes, challenged the prevailing norms of the photographic world. 

Leiter’s photographs often utilized reflections, shadows, and the interplay of light and color to create images that bordered on the painterly, reflecting his background in painting.

The New York School of Photography

Leiter was a contemporary of the New York School of photographers, a loosely defined group that included Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, and William Klein, among others. 

Though he shared their interest in capturing the everyday life of New York City, Leiter’s work was distinguished by its quiet, contemplative approach and its innovative use of color.

Commercial Work and Recognition

Despite his contributions to photography, Leiter maintained a relatively low profile for much of his career. He found commercial success as a fashion photographer in the 1950s and 60s, working for prestigious magazines such as Esquire and Harper’s Bazaar.

However, his personal work remained largely unrecognized by the broader art world until the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Later Years and Rediscovery

The late 1990s marked a resurgence of interest in Leiter’s work, culminating in a series of exhibitions that introduced his photography to a new generation of artists and critics. 

Books such as “Early Color,” published in 2006, played a crucial role in cementing his legacy as a master of color photography. Leiter continued to live and work in New York City until his death on November 26, 2013.

Legacy and Influence

Saul Leiter’s legacy lies in his unique vision and pioneering use of color in photography. His work, marked by its lyrical quality and emotional depth, has influenced countless photographers and remains a seminal reference for those exploring the boundaries between photography and painting.

Leiter’s photographs capture the poetry of the mundane and the beauty of the overlooked, offering a nuanced and deeply personal view of the world.


Saul Leiter’s career spans over six decades, during which he quietly forged a path as one of the most innovative and influential photographers of the 20th century. 

His work challenges conventional distinctions between the commercial and the artistic, the photographic and the painterly, marking him as a true visionary in the field. 

Today, Leiter is celebrated for his contributions to color photography and his ability to capture the complexity and beauty of urban life.

Joe Edelman

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