Saul Leiter’s haunting street photographs

New York has never had a shortage of photographers chronicling the city’s moods and moments.

But Saul Leiter’s 1940s and 1950s color photos are something else, even among his New York School contemporaries.

Born in 1923, Leiter came to New York from Pittsburgh. With no training, he made a living shooting fashion magazine spreads.

On his own, he walked the streets with his camera—often an expired roll of color film inside, which created pictures with muted colors.

He captured fluid fragments of otherwise unremarkable city life that make haunting, unsentimental images.

[At left, "Yellow Scarf," 1956; above, "Frank's Pizza," 1952]

In a 2009 interview with Photographers Speak, Leiter responded to a comment about his work representing the alienation of the city with this:

“I never thought of the urban environment as isolating. I leave these speculations to others.

“It is quite possible that my work represents a search for beauty in the most prosaic and ordinary places.

“One doesn’t have to be in some faraway dreamland in order to find beauty. I realize that the search for beauty is not highly popular these days. Agony, misery, and wretchedness, now these are worth pursuing.”

[above: "Postmen," 1952]

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9 Responses to “Saul Leiter’s haunting street photographs”

  1. Lisa Says:

    These photos are GORGEOUS! Never heard of Sol Leiter before, but just looked at some additional photos in Google images– I’m blown away!

  2. Josie Says:

    Thanks for an introduction to Leiter’s work. I like it very much. I also greatly enjoyed that 2009 interview. What a refreshing attitude he has.

  3. wildnewyork Says:

    They’re eerily beautiful, aren’t they? I highly recommend Saul Leiter: Early Color, published a few years back. I’m sure the Strand has some copies.

    Also, I realized I spelled his name wrong: It’s Saul. Apologies.

  4. Rebecca Says:

    Thanks for posting these. They’re beautiful. Love your site…

  5. wildnewyork Says:

    Thank you. I just can’t get enough of the color in Leiter’s work.

  6. petey Says:

    wonderful pics. they’re from just before i was born, but i recognize Whelan’s and big tin ads. odd to feel nostalgic for a time when i wasn’t around even.

  7. Quid plura? | “I need a phone call, I need a raincoat…” Says:

    [...] Ephemeral New York notes the photography of Saul Leiter. [...]

  8. “A moment of quiet humanity” with Saul Leiter « Ephemeral New York Says:

    [...] Saul Leiter’s photographs capture bits and pieces of midcentury New York’s muted beauty—as seen here in 1957′s Phone Call. [...]

  9. A photographer’s full-color midcentury city | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] pioneering photos have been collected in a 2011 book, Color Correction. Like Saul Leiter and other photographers who shot New York in full-on color during the same period, roughly the 1950s through the 1970s, they […]

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