Saul Leiter, American painter and photographer, was part of what was known as the New York school of photography of the 1940s and 50s, and resided on East 10th Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues for 61 years until his death in 2013. His photographs from the 1950s experimented with color, unlike those of his contemporaries, and many were street scenes of his East Village neighborhood. Also unlike many of his contemporaries, the significance of this work has only recently come to be recognized and he is now duly credited as an early pioneer of color photography.
The son of a well-known Talmudic scholar and rabbi, Saul Leiter was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on December 3, 1923, and expected to follow in his father’s footsteps. Much to his family’s dismay, he left religious school at the age of 23 and went to New York City to pursue painting. While at art school he befriended abstract-expressionist painter Richard Pousette-Dart, who encouraged Leiter’s experiments with photography. He also became acquainted with photographer W. Eugene Smith, who would introduce him to members of what would be known as the New York school of photography, and included such noted photographers as Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, William Klein, and Richard Avedon.
Leiter had begun to experiment with color photography by 1948, using an inexpensive 35mm camera and film which was sometimes past its date of expiration. The main subjects during this time in the 1950s were his friends and street scenes, mostly in the East Village. He said that he was especially fond of photographing First Avenue due to the lighting along the thoroughfare as a result of the low buildings. His plays with focus, light, form, reflection, and composition generated an innovative and painterly quality to his work, which makes his photos stand out from those of his contemporaries.
Leiter moved into 111 East 10th Street in 1952 and took over the second-floor space in 2002, after the death of his partner, the artist Soames Bantry, who had been there since 1960. Following his death, the Saul Leiter Foundation was founded in 2014 and is located in his former apartment/studio on East 10th Street. The Foundation maintains an archive of Leiter’s work and promotes Leiter’s art, along with the medium of photography, through various educational programs, lectures, and exhibitions worldwide.