The beauty of simple things: Saul Leiter

Saul Leiter, whose photograph 'Snow' (1960) adorns the cover of the forthcoming Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh and Thomas Bartlett album, was an American artist and early pioneer of colour photography.

Leiter moved to New York in 1946, ostensibly to be a painter, and it was his friend, the abstract expressionist Richard Poussette-Dart, who was already experimenting with photography, that encouraged Leiter to pick up a camera. Initially working in black and white, by the early 1950s Leiter was also using colour, well before most other photographers had started to adopt the medium. In later life, however, he would disarmingly say, “I’m supposed to be a pioneer…” not holding much truck with the idea, “I did what I wanted to do. I think from the very beginning, and maybe because I didn’t know any better, I did certain things.”

One of those things was to continue to both paint and take photographs, the two disciplines remaining of equal interest throughout his life. The use of colour within his photographs is often attributed to his enduring interest in painting, but, again, a self-deprecating Leiter had a different take, “I wonder sometimes if I would have been a better painter if I had just been a painter. Would I have explored certain areas of painting? But what’s the point of thinking about it — if you do both, you do both. And sometimes I think you’re lucky if you do both.”

Saul Leiter 'Snow' (1960) © Saul Leiter Foundation, courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery

By the late 1950s Leiter was a regular contributor to fashion magazines such as Esquire and Harper’s Bazaar, commissioned by the art director Henry Wolf, often going against the norm, eschewing the studio to embrace the unpredictable and work outside in the city streets, “Things are going on… you never know what is going to happen.” His work as a fashion photographer continued throughout the 60s and 70s whilst his non-commercial work, largely documenting the East Village neighbourhood he had moved to in 1952, remained relatively unknown until the publication by Steidl of his monograph ‘Early Color’ in 2006.

“A window covered with raindrops interests me more than a photograph of a famous person.” Saul Leiter
Saul Leiter, Self-Portrait, c. 1947. Credit: ©Saul Leiter Foundation, courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery

One long-term champion of Leiter’s work, the Howard Greenberg Gallery, held a number of exhibitions from the 1990s onwards and it is their generosity, and especially that of the Saul Leiter Foundation, that has allowed ‘Snow’ (1960) to be used for the cover of Caoimhín and Thomas’s album. For Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh it was the perfect choice of image:

“The combination of the definite and the doubt, this moment flickered for a second and was gone, the choreography of human life conspiring for Saul and his lens. There’s such a beauty and strength to that central character, the mystery created by the blur and smear of the windowpane, the weather, the condensation, the obfuscation. It all conspires to affect you deeply and leave you with a feeling, a space in your head that asks for calm and quiet and time to digest and to dream. It is an extraordinary image. And it says to me those things I would love our music to say to others.”

Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh


“As we see in his ‘Snow’ photograph, Saul Leiter had a knack for finding quiet moments in a bustling city. ‘I believe in the beauty of simple things,’ he would say. One of his most special gifts is coaxing us to slow down and pay attention. All of these ideas are evoked in some way by Caoimhín and Thomas’s music. The Saul Leiter Foundation is pleased that they’ve found inspiration in Saul’s work and have chosen this image to help represent their wonderful recording. Saul would really like the album!”

Michael Parillo, Saul Leiter Foundation, New York

Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh & Thomas Bartlett reveal details of new album

A musical collaboration between two members of The Gloaming, the album is out in September.

In No Great Hurry: 13 Lessons in Life with Saul Leiter.

Towards the end of his life Leiter was the subject of an award-winning documentary by Tomas Leach, entitled ‘In No Great Hurry: 13 Lessons in Life with Saul Leiter,’ where he shows himself to be a reluctant but highly engaging and entertaining subject. It is well worth a watch for anyone who wants to know more about the man behind the camera: “I go out with my camera and I take pictures because I enjoy capturing certain moments. Of course I don’t know that I’m going to get what I’m going to get; it takes time.”

Saul Leiter, 3 December 1923 – 26 November 2013


The Saul Leiter Foundation
Saul Leiter quotes in the above article taken from the following sources:
Howard Greenberg Gallery
Aperture Foundation
Steidl Books
Saul Leiter in Conversation with Vince Aletti

Featured Release

By Online Editor

Main image: Saul Leiter, Self-Portrait, 1950s. Photo credit: © Saul Leiter Foundation, courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery

Published on Tue, 06 August 19

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