People of New York: the photography of Leon Levinstein

Leon Levinstein, Fifth Avenue, New York, c. 1969. Gelatin silver print, 41.3 x 34.3 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York. Photo: NGC

During his lifetime the American photographer Leon Levinstein did not achieve the degree of recognition in keeping with the high calibre of his work and his long devotion to the medium. He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1975 and although his photographs were included in a number of important group exhibitions, he only had one solo exhibition and never published a monograph. Since his death in 1988, his work has gradually gained recognition and he is now viewed as a key figure in 20th-century photography.

Leon Levinstein was born in 1908 in the small town of Buckhannon, West Virginia and spent half his life in Baltimore, where he had moved with his mother and siblings in 1923. After graduating from high school, he attended the Maryland Institute of Art and probably the Art Institute of Pittsburgh before working as a graphic designer until 1942 when he enrolled in the army and served until the end of the Second World War. Shortly after his return he moved to New York to work at the Colby Advertising Agency started by a friend from Baltimore.

Leon Levinstein, Coney Island, c. 1965. Gelatin silver print, 37.8 x 35.4 cm; image: 36.8 x 34.9 cm. Gift of the American Friends of Canada Committee, Inc., 1995, through the generosity of Stuart E. Karu. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York. Photo: NGC

In New York Levinstein continued taking studio courses in painting and printmaking. He also enrolled in photography courses with Alexey Brodovitch, art director of Harper’s Bazaar, who was renowned as an influential instructor and counted among his students the likes of Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Hiro [Yasuhiro Wakabayashi] and Bruce Davidson. During this period, Levinstein was also involved with the Photo League, a cooperative of mainly documentary photographers and in the late 1940s the only photography school in the US. Although not a full member, he made use of their darkrooms and attended lectures and courses. Most important among these were the ones he took with director Sid Grossman who promoted photography as a means of using the “convincing power of reality” to create personal statements that expressed the “strongest human feelings, including those of the photographer…", as cited by photographic historian Bob Shamis in the 1995 exhibition organized by the National Gallery of Canada. Another important influence was Lisette Model whom Levinstein came to know through the Photo League and Grossman’s classes. Shamis notes that from Model’s photographs Levinstein developed an appreciation for how effectively the human body could express emotions and inner states of mind.

Leon Levinstein, Harlem, c. 1952. Gelatin silver print, 33.5 x 28.2 cm; image: 35.2 x 27.4 cm. Gift of the American Friends of Canada Committee, Inc., 1995, through the generosity of Stuart E. Karu. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York. Photo: NGC

Levinstein was a committed street photographer and a master of the candid photograph. For over thirty years he spent much of his free time wandering the streets of New York photographing his favourite subject, the city’s people. As a whole, the picture his work paints of the city is both a rich and interesting document of a place and its people at a particular period in time and a highly subjective, personal vision. As former NGC curator Jim Borcoman has noted of Levinstein, “His photographs combine a sense of form with a deep interest in humanity. No propagandist for social reform, nor working with a social documentarian’s agenda, he was simply a photographer with a consummate eye who observed the human condition.”

Leon Levinstein, Untitled, c. 1979. Gelatin silver print, 39.3 x 48.8 cm; image: 39.3 x 48.8 cm. Gift of Lewis Auerbach and Barbara Legowski, Ottawa, 2017. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York. Photo: NGC

Often gritty, unflinching and intimate, his images record aspects of social behaviour and human interaction in public spaces. They revel in the human form, the face, the hand, the gesture, the unguarded moment and the detail. Levinstein's Untitled, a photograph recently acquired by the National Gallery of Canada, was taken on Coney Island around 1979. It exemplifies many of the characteristics that make Levinstein’s work so compelling. It is a very dynamic image both at a dramatic level and compositionally. There is an intensity conveyed through the expressions, positioning and postures of the young men that suggests a readiness for movement or action perhaps precipitated by an event unfolding outside the frame. This is heightened by (or perhaps even the product of) the image's structure and formal properties. The extreme close up, created either at the time of exposure or in the darkroom, moves the viewer right in on Levinstein’s subjects. The selective focus, tight cropping, full frame and repetition of form (the faces) direct the eye into the image and layer the picture plane creating a sense of depth.

The National Gallery of Canada has a rich collection of work by this master of American street photography that includes 78 photographs and four Super 8 films, almost all of which were shot in the streets of New York. Additionally, in 1995 the National Gallery of Canada’s Library and Archives received Levinstein’s colour transparencies (752) and negatives (16, 841) which he had carefully organized into envelopes annotated with descriptions and printing instructions.

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