Saul Leiter (1923–2013) was an American artist and early pioneer of colour photography. With distinctive imagery infused with painterly qualities, his work represents a perfect blend of New York’s streets, architecture, and inhabitants. “A window covered with raindrops interests me more than a photograph of a famous person,” Leiter once declared.

Photography seemed to be an escape for Leiter. Born in Pittsburgh his father was a well-known rabbi and Talmudic scholar, and Leiter was encouraged to become a rabbi as well. In 1946, 22-year-old Saul Leiter abandoned his theological studies and moved from Cleveland to New York. He rented an apartment on East 10th Street in Manhatten and stayed there for over half a century until his death in 2013.

Largely self-taught, expressionist painter Richard Pousett-Dart introduced him to W. Eugene Smith, the photojournalist, who became an important figure in Leiter’s life. He was encouraged to pursue photography as a medium alongside his painting. Smith would later introduce him to other influential street photographers, including Robert Frank, William Klein, and Diane Arbus, members of the movement sometimes referred to as “The New York School of Photography.” He began a lifelong career documenting his East Village neighbourhood, choosing to shoot in colour in the 1940s, well before other art photographers adopted the medium.

His photos show the ways that colour can be distinguishing in the street, revealing details that are interesting because of their colour, and not in spite of them, like the yellow fin of the old Cadillac. It’s hard to imagine black and white doing his photos justice.

In the 1950s, Leiter’s work was noticed by Edward Steichen, who included him in two shows at the Museum of Modern Art (Always the Young Strangers, 1953 and Experimental Photography in Color, 1957). However, after that, Leiter’s work faded from view. While he became a successful fashion photographer, he continued to explore the streets of New York, printing some of his black and white photographs, but putting his colour slides into boxes.

In 2006 Leiter, then 82 years old, assisted by Art Historian Martin Harrison and The Howard Greenberg Gallery, Leiter released his groundbreaking monograph “Saul Leiter: Early Color” - a collection of personal color photography from his vast archive. What Leiter called his “little book” became an overnight sensation with worldwide distribution and firmly established the artist as an early pioneer in the history of colour photography. It led to Leiter’s first major retrospective and countless exhibitions worldwide, including his first European exhibition at The Foundation Henri Cartier-Bresson in Paris, in 2008. In 2013, British filmmaker Tomas Leach directed the documentary ‘In No Great Hurry’, an intimate portrait of Leiter that received widespread acclaim.

Leiter continued to take photographs almost up until his death in late 2013, aged eighty-nine. His works are held in the collections of numerous prestigious museums and galleries across the world and, to this day, continue to inspire and delight those who view them.

I may be old-fashioned. But I believe there is such a thing as a search for beauty – a delight in the nice things in the world. And I don’t think one should have to apologize for it.

–Saul Leiter, In No Great Hurry, 2013

Leiter worked with a variety of lenses but was well known for often using a telephoto perspective which he used to create a compressed view that made his work feel painterly.

Leiter used many other strategies to enhance painterly look and feel, including shooting in the rain and snow, photographing through windows, including reflections, and combining many elements at different depths, often bringing out strong colours in out-of-focus foreground elements. He even purchased expired colour film, which would allow for surprise colour shifts.

Now widely recognized as one of the most important practitioners of the post-war period, Leiter was an early pioneer of colour, renowned for the stunning painting-like images captured on the streets of his home city during the 50s, 60s, and 70s.

However, despite a relatively successful career as a commercial photographer, working on assignments for renowned fashion publications such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, it wasn’t until the latter stages of his life that his personal work would begin to gain the recognition it deserved, thanks to several exhibitions at Howard Greenberg Gallery from the late 1990s, and the 2006 monograph Early Color.

“I look into the camera and take pictures. My photographs are the tiniest part of what I see that could be photographed. They are fragments of endless possibilities.”

Sadly, Leiter passed away just days after the film’s release in 2013, leaving behind a collection of over 40,000 colour slides, most of which had never been seen.

Carefully curated by Leiter’s close friend Margit Erb, alongside her husband Michael Parillo, codirectors of the Saul Leiter Foundation, seventy-six of these images are published here for the first time. The accompanying text explains both how the photographer built his archive and the ongoing process of cataloging and restoring it.

Up until now, the majority of Leiter’s images that exist within the public realm are those published in the landmark monograph, Early Color, which all but introduced his extraordinary talent to photography enthusiasts some sixteen years ago.

Though he also photographed in black and white throughout his career, it is for these revelatory, chromatic images, captured almost exclusively on the streets surrounding his Manhattan home, for which he is best known.

The Unseen Saul Leiter continues in a similar vein, exploring his profound relationship with colour, further demonstrating his innate ability to transform fragments of quotidian life into deeply compelling imagery.

His compositions at times, verge on the abstract, owing to his employment of unique techniques and perspectives, such as photographing through windows, their surfaces filtered by rain, steam, or faint reflections, and utilizing shadows, unusual angles, and frequently, a telephoto lens, to achieve compression, in contrast to the wide-angle style commonly used by street photographers.

Truly fascinating, accentuated by the accompanying text, as well as the images of his somewhat chaotic studio and apartment, it is a book that further cements his place as one of the most creative and innovative photographers of his generation.

An innovator, who refused to subscribe to the popular conception that colour was suited only to commercial photography, and a man whose vision, artistry, and somewhat eccentric outlook, remain profoundly inspiring today.