36 Saul Leiter Quotes: Lessons from the Pioneering Color Photographer

Looking for the best Saul Leiter quotes? Then you’ve come to the right place. Saul Leiter (1923-2013) was a master street photographer and painter. He is best known for his pioneering color photography in the 1940s and 1950s.

Leiter embraced photography with a painter’s eye and turned ordinary everyday moments into beautiful abstract color imagery.

Leiter made a living shooting fashion during the heyday of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue. By the 1980s though, he had faded into obscurity and for many decades he lived and worked virtually unknown.

In 2006, Leiter enjoyed a remarkable revival with the release of his book, Saul Leiter: Early Color. The book was an overnight success and firmly established Leiter as an early pioneer of color photography.

Below we’ve listed 36 of our favorite Saul Leiter quotes to inspire and help take your photography to the next level.

If you find this article helpful, then we would be grateful if you could share it with other photographers through the usual channels (blogs, forums, social media, etc).

Saul Leiter Quotes

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.

Seeing is a neglected enterprise.

I think I’ve said this before many times – that photography allows you to learn to look and see. You begin to see things you had never paid any attention to. And as you photograph, one of the benefits is that the world becomes a much richer, juicier, visual place. Sometimes it is almost unbearable – it is too interesting. And it isn’t always just the photos you take that matters. It is looking at the world and seeing things that you never photograph that could be photographs if you had the energy to keep taking pictures every second of your life.

Some photographers think that by taking pictures of human misery, they are addressing a serious problem. I do not think that misery is more profound than happiness.

I have been told that some of my photographs maybe indicate that I am a painter.

Photography is about finding things. And painting is different – it’s about making something.

Everything is suitable to be photographed. Everything is a photograph.

Saul Leiter Quotes 1

Leiter on Photography Technique

Whatever complexity people find in the work that I do, must be there, because they find it. I have not set out to be complex.

My friend Henry [Wolf] once said that I had a talent for being indifferent to opportunities. He felt that I could have built more of a career, but instead I went home and drank coffee and looked out the window.

I didn’t try to communicate any kind of philosophy since I am not a philosopher. I am a photographer. That’s it.

I don’t have a philosophy. I have a camera. 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.

When we do not know why the photographer has taken a picture and when we do not know why we are looking at it, all of a sudden we discover something that we start seeing. I like this confusion.

I think when you take a photograph, if it turns out to be something good, there’s a kind of Zen element that takes place. It’s difficult to describe. People talk of controlling, but it’s not true. You can’t control the swirl of reality. If you’re very lucky, from time to time, you do something that is good.

I happen to believe in simple things and the beauty of simple things. I believe that the most uninteresting thing can be interesting.

Saul Leiter, Snow
Snow, 1960 © Saul Leiter Foundation

Leiter on Finding Photos

I go out to take a walk, I see something, I take a picture. I take photographs. I have avoided profound explanations of what I do.

A window covered with raindrops interests me more than a photograph of a famous person.

The street is like a ballet. You never know what is going to happen.

There are the things that are out in the open and then there are the things that are hidden, and life has more to do, the real world has more to do with what is hidden.

I never thought of the urban environment as isolating. I leave these speculations to others. It’s quite possible that my work represents a search for beauty in the most prosaic and ordinary places. One doesn’t have to be in some faraway dreamland in order to find beauty. I realize that the search for beauty is not highly popular these days. Agony, misery and wretchedness, now these are worth perusing.

I take photographs in my neighbourhood. I think that mysterious things happen in familiar places. We don’t always need to run to the other end of the world.

A photographer’s gift to the viewer is sometimes the beauty in the overlooked ordinary.

Saul Leiter, Woman Waiting
Woman Waiting © Saul Leiter Foundation

Quotes on Equipment and Color

I liked different lenses for different times. I am fond of the telephoto lens, as I am of the normal 50 mm lens. I had at one point a 150 mm lens and I was very fond it. I liked what it did.

I think the art world is afflicted with mistaken notions during certain periods, and they become very prevalent, and people take them very seriously. But eventually they’re abandoned and seen as very silly and unimportant. Color has always aroused suspicion in the minds of certain people.

I experimented a lot. Sometimes I worked with a lens that I had when I might have preferred another lens. I think Picasso once said that he wanted to use green in a painting but since he didn’t have it he used red. Perfection is not something I admire. A touch of confusion is a desirable ingredient.

I find it strange that anyone would believe that the only thing that matters is black and white. It’s just idiotic. The history of art is the history of colour. The cave paintings had colour…

Leiter, Painting on Nude
Painting on Nude © Saul Leiter Foundation

Saul Leiter Quotes for Better Photography

I admired a tremendous number of photographers, but for some reason I arrived at a point of view of my own.

If I’d only known which [photographs] would be very good and liked, I wouldn’t have had to do all the thousands of others.

I believe that there is something in you that strives for order, and within that order there’s a certain kind of mishmoshy confusion, and you bring this mishmoshy confusion, if you succeed, into some kind of order. There’s an element of control, and there’s also an element that just happens – if you’re very lucky. Artists need luck.

In order to build a career and to be successful, one has to be determined. One has to be ambitious. I much prefer to drink coffee, listen to music and to paint when I feel like it… Maybe I was irresponsible. But part of the pleasure of being alive is that I didn’t take everything as seriously as one should.

Saul Leiter Cafe
Paris Cafe © Saul Leiter Foundation

Check your Ego

I spent a great deal of my life being ignored. I was always very happy that way. Being ignored is a great privilege. That is how I think I learnt to see what others do not see and to react to situations differently. I simply looked at the world, not really prepared for anything.

We live in a world full of expectations, and if you have the courage, you ignore the expectations. And you can look forward to trouble.

I’m sometimes mystified by people who keep diaries. I never thought of my existence as being that important.

I am not immersed in self-admiration. When I am listening to Vivaldi or Japanese music or making spaghetti at three in the morning and realize that I don’t have the proper sauce for it, fame is of no use. The other way to put it is that I don’t have a talent for narcissism. Or, to put it yet another way, the mirror is not my best friend.

I’ve never been overwhelmed with a desire to become famous. It’s not that I didn’t want to have my work appreciated, but for some reason – maybe it’s because my father disapproved of almost everything I did – in some secret place in my being was a desire to avoid success.

I have a deep-seated distrust and even contempt for people who are driven by ambition to conquer the world… those who cannot control themselves and produce vast amounts of crap that no one cares about. I find it unattractive. I like the Zen artists: they’d do some work, and then they’d stop for a while.

The cream does not always rise to the surface. The history of art is a history of great things neglected and ignored and bad and mediocre things being admired. As someone once said “life is unfair.” There are always changes and revisions of the appreciation of art, artists, and photography and writers and on and on. The late art of Picasso is no good but then a revision takes place and then it becomes very good as the art records indicate. Things come and go.

Street Photography, Vendor
© Saul Leiter Foundation

What’s your Favorite Saul Leiter Quote?

Have a favorite Saul Leiter quote from the list? Let us know in the comment section below.

Don’t forget to bookmark this page, or print it out, and refer to it next time you need some inspiration. Like the article? Share it with other photographers.

To learn more about Leiter photography, check out the Saul Leiter Foundation website. We also recommend watching the brilliant 2013 documentary, In No Great Hurry: 13 Lessons in Life with Saul Leiter.

Looking for more words of wisdom from master photographers? Visit the quotes section of Photogpedia for more great photography quotes.

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Founder of Photogpedia.com. Photography enthusiast, occasional filmmaker, part-time writer and full-time dreamer. Rediscovered photography in 2012 and have been trying to level up my photography skills since (I'm getting there) #chasingthecreative

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