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Saul Leiter, 89; took early photos of NYC in color

Saul Leiter photographed “Postmen” in 1952. Saul Leiter/Howard Greenberg Gallery
“From the El,” a black-and-white image made in 1952.Saul Leiter/Howard Greenberg Gallery

NEW YORK — New York at midcentury was a monochrome town, or so its best-known documentarians would have us believe.

But where eminent photographers like Weegee, Diane Arbus, and Richard Avedon captured the city most often in clangorous, sharp-edged black and white, Saul Leiter saw it as a quiet polychrome symphony — the glow of neon, the halos of stoplights, the golden blur of taxis — a visual music that few of his contemporaries seemed inclined to hear.

One of the first professionals to photograph New York City regularly in color, Mr. Leiter, who died Tuesday at 89, was among the foremost art photographers of his time, despite the fact that his work was practically unknown to the general public.

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Of the tens of thousands of images he shot, many now esteemed as among the finest examples of street photography in the world, most remain unprinted.

Trained first as a rabbi and then as a painter, Mr. Leiter the photographer spent the last 60 years being cyclically forgotten and rediscovered. In the end he remained very nearly the antithesis of a household name, a state of affairs that, with his lifelong craving for privacy and genial constitutional dyspepsia, he found hugely satisfying.

“In order to build a career and to be successful, one has to be determined,” Mr. Leiter said for a monograph published in Germany in 2008.

“One has to be ambitious. I much prefer to drink coffee, listen to music, and to paint when I feel like it.”

Mr. Leiter, under some protest, came to renewed attention in recent years. In 2005 his early color photography was the subject of a well-received exhibition at the Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York; in 2006 a lavishly illustrated book, “Saul Leiter: Early Color,” with a foreword by the British art historian Martin Harrison, helped make it even more widely known.

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Mr. Leiter was photographed in 2008 at his exhibit in Paris.Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty Images

That year, the Milwaukee Art Museum mounted the first solo museum exhibition of Mr. Leiter’s color images; exhibitions followed at the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson in Paris and elsewhere.

A feature-length documentary, “In No Great Hurry: 13 Lessons in Life With Saul Leiter,” by the British filmmaker Tomas Leach, was released this year to glowing notices. It has been shown at film festivals throughout the United States and Europe, including the DocNYC festival in New York this month.

All this left Mr. Leiter bemused, bothered, and at most slightly pleased.

“What makes anyone think that I’m any good?” he says in Leach’s film. “I’m not carried away by the greatness of Mr. Leiter.”

But others were.

“He is one of the most important early color photographers of the 20th century,” Lisa Hostetler, the newly appointed curator of photography at George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y., said in an interview Tuesday.

“The images he made communicated the sense of rhythm and movement and being caught up in the city.”

Saul Leiter was born in Pittsburgh on Dec. 3, 1923, a scion of a dynastic rabbinic family that stretched back hundreds of years.

His father, Wolf, a rabbi, an eminent Talmud scholar and a leader of Pittsburgh’s Orthodox Jewish community, charted a similar course for Saul.

But in the mid-1940s, after studying for the rabbinate at a Cleveland seminary, Mr. Leiter left without graduating and moved to New York to become a painter — a choice, he said, that deeply displeased his family.

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In Manhattan, he worked with the abstract expressionist painter Richard Pousette-Dart, who also encouraged him to explore photography. Mr. Leiter did so, and grew deeply influenced by the photographers W. Eugene Smith, who became a friend, and André Kertész, whose work he admired.

This professional turn displeased his family even more.

“My father thought photography was done by lowlifes,” Mr. Leiter said in a 2009 interview with the website Photographers Speak. “My family was very unhappy about my becoming a photographer — profoundly and deeply unhappy.”

In 1953, eminent photographer Edward Steichen included some of Mr. Leiter’s photographs in the exhibition “Always the Young Strangers” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Mr. Leiter was pleased, he said afterward, although the achievement did not impress him much.

Mr. Leiter’s companion of more than half a century, Soames Bantry, died in 2002; an artist and model, she was the subject of many of his photographs and paintings. He leaves a brother, Abba.

His work was featured prominently in the 1992 book “The New York School: Photographs, 1936-1963,” by Jane Livingston, and was the subject of a 2008 book, “Saul Leiter,” with an introduction by Max Kozloff.

In the interview with Photographers Speak, Mr. Leiter set his role as a photographer against the backdrop of far more vital human events.

“I am not immersed in self-admiration,” he said. “When I am listening to Vivaldi or Japanese music or making spaghetti at 3 in the morning and realize that I don’t have the proper sauce for it, fame is of no use.”

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