Leon Levinstein’s photographs are direct and uncompromising. He did not sentimentalize the lives of the people that he photographed, nor did he judge them, as he walked the streets of the city. The two activities photographing and walking in the city, were inseparable for him. Most of his images were made in the New York neighborhoods to which he would return, week after week, year after year, for nearly forty years: the Lower East Side, Coney Island, Harlem, and Times Square. These were places where life’s dramas were often played out on the street, as was true of the countries in which he did his strongest work while traveling: Haiti, India, and Mexico.
Wherever Levinstein photographed, it was not the urban landscape but rather the human element that was important to him. His candid street portraits are emotionally expressive and often convey an unexpected sense of intimacy. Although there is tenderness, joy, and humor depicted in many of his images, the reality he portrayed was often harsh, and many of the faces he photographed reflect a very real struggle for survival in the city and a solitude to which Levinstein himself was no stranger.
Levinstein was born in 1910 in Buckhannon, West Virginia, and moved with his family to Baltimore when he was thirteen. He excelled in drawing and painting in high school and went on to study at the Maryland Institute of Art. During the 1930s he worked in advertising as a layout artist and art director, until he entered the US Army in 1942. After the war he moved to New York to work for a small advertising company and to further his art studies. One of the first classes he enrolled in was a photography course taught by the influential graphic designer Alexey Brodovitch. Levinstein continued studying photography with another important teacher, Sid Grossman, and within a few years had decided to de-emphasize his career in advertising and devote himself to photography.
Levinstein’s training in art and graphic design served him well as a photographer, and many of his images demonstrate an extraordinary, dynamic sense of form. Working spontaneously and without a prescribed method. he was nevertheless extremely disciplined in composing his images and included only those elements that he felt were essential. Abstracted from their surroundings through bold framing or selective focus, the faces and bodies in a Levinstein photograph often have a tactile, sculptural presence. There is substance in his figures. This physicality also derives from the fact that he often photographed from extremely close range. Looking at his photographs one senses the photographer’s presence. yet one only rarely finds his presence intrusive.
—Bob Shamis, Guest Curator
Organized and circulated by the National Gallery of Canada.