Saul Leiter started shooting color and black-and-white street photography in New York in the 1940s. He had no formal training in photography, but the genius of his early work was quickly acknowledged by Edward Steichen, who included Leiter in two important MoMA shows in the 1950s. MoMA’s 1957 conference “Experimental Photography in Color” featured 20 color photographs by Leiter.
After that, however, Leiter’s personal color photography was, for the most part, not shared with the public. He became better-known as a successful fashion photographer in the 1950s and 60s. All the while, Leiter continued to stroll the streets wherever he was (mostly New York and Paris), making photographs for his own pleasure. He printed some of his black-and-white street photos, but kept most of his color slides tucked away in boxes. It was only in the 1990s that he began to look back at that remarkable color work and start to make prints. His sense of color and densely compressed urban life represents a truly unique vision of those times.
The first European retrospective of Saul Leiter’s street photography took place at the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson in Paris. The exhibition included one floor of black-and-white images, and another floor of all color. The color work is especially thrilling to see because not much of it had been seen before—and it is all wonderful and quirky and surprisingly fresh. A book just published by Steidl coincides with this retrospective, and includes more than 100 black-and-white and color photographs.
Leiter, who is 84 and still quite active, came to Paris for the opening of his show. He is humble and unassuming and intensely curious about things around him. In an interview for the new book, he said:
“I started out as a fashion photographer. One cannot say that I was successful but there was enough work to keep me busy. I collaborated with Harper’s Bazaar and other magazines. I had work and I made a living. At the same time, I took my own photographs.