With occasional reflection on the perpetual absurdity/intrigue of life and society in general.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Leon Levinstein, The Lonely Photographer (NPR) - Images of Intrigue

It's the burden of a successful photographer to answer the dreaded question: What makes a great photograph?

But sometimes a photographer will proffer an unsolicited view. Like Leon Levinstein, who, in a1988 interview, gave his thoughts. "A good photograph," he said, "will prove to the viewer how little our eyes permit us to see. Most people only see what they've always seen and what they expect to see. Whereas a photographer, if he's good, will see everything."

And Leon Levinstein, although perhaps an unfamiliar name, was a good photographer.

There's a common canon of 1960s street photographers, which includes names like Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand and Robert Frank. They received grants and awards, sought magazine assignments and gallery showings, and their names are always the first to roll off the tongues of photo historians and critics when discussing that era of street photography.

But one photographer, whose work rivals theirs, has remained in relative obscurity by choice; he doesn't even have a Wikipedia page. The man, Leon Levinstein, summed it up himself in that 1980s interview. "You gotta be alone and work alone," he said. "It's a lonely occupation, if you wanna call it that." - Follow the link for the complete article on NPR.

To view online or visit a thorough retrospective of his work:

Hipsters, Hustlers, and Handball Players: Leon Levinstein's New York Photographs, 1950–1980
June 8, 2010–October 17, 2010
The Howard Gilman Gallery - The Metropolitan Museum of Art

See the Collection Database for a list of works included in this exhibition.
Download the audio file. MP3 (5.29 MB) - Excerpts from 1988 archival recording, Leon Levinstein talks about his work.
Leon Levinstein (American, 1910–1988), an unheralded master of street photography, is best known for his candid and unsentimental black-and-white figure studies made in New York City neighborhoods from Times Square and the Lower East Side to Coney Island. This exhibition, drawn exclusively from the Metropolitan's collection, will feature some forty photographs that reflect the artist's fearless approach to the medium. Levinstein's graphic virtuosity—seen in raw, expressive gestures and seemingly monumental bodies—is balanced by his unusual compassion for his offbeat subjects from the demimonde.

Born in West Virginia in 1910, Levinstein moved to New York in 1946 and spent the next thirty-five years obsessively photographing strangers on the streets of his adopted home. Early in his career, Levinstein was quoted in
Photography Annual 1955: "In my photographs I want to look at life—at the commonplace things as if I just turned a corner and ran into them for the first time." With daring and dedication to his subject, Levinstein captured the denizens of New York City at extremely close range. He used his superb sense of composition to frame the faces, flesh, poses, and movements of his fellow city dwellers in their myriad guises: sunbathers, young couples, children, businessmen, beggars, prostitutes, proselytizers, society ladies, and characters of all stripes.

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