Leon Levinstein: The Indiscriminate Eye

When learning about the work of a new photographer, more often than not I have some piece of biography that helps me place the photographs in context. In the case of Leon Levinstein, I got to know him through working in ICP’s collection, looking through all of the approximately 200 prints in the archive. Diving into a body of work before moving into biographical details allowed for an intimate meeting with a warm visual storyteller.

New York–based photographer Leon Levinstein was genuinely interested in individuals—in strangers—going about their everyday business. His photographs capture lived life that transgress generations, skin color, and economic status and cover the multitude of people roaming the streets.

His photographs demonstrate a visual curiosity, and a deep desire to depict a segment of the world typically unseen, or even deliberately overlooked. The poor, the deprived, the dirty, the drunk, the happy, the sad, he collects moments that perhaps are briefly noticed by a passerby but that rarely lingers in anyone’s memory.

Levinstein had an indiscriminate eye. His direct, classic black and white portraits of strangers have a timeless flare. He frames his photographs using shadows and exploring the light, his lines and angles always precise and provide additional depth. The seriousness of life, the hopelessness and harshness of the street hit us when looking at these two portraits. Yet, the will to carry on, the stubbornness, and the humor necessary for survival clearly come across.

levinstein_leon_2010_113_5Leon Levinstein, [Happy Birthday Eddie, Kiss Me Today], n.d. (2010.113.5)

Best known for his many photographs of New York, it is sometimes forgotten that he also took several trips abroad. In India, Haiti, Spain, and Portugal, he photographed extensively, sometimes investigating other topics than in his New York images. This is particularly true for his trip to India in 1978, where Levinstein explored people’s relationship to the visual image. In the ICP Collection, there is a series of street photography of a more literal sense; photographers setting up studios on the street for people to get their photograph taken. Or, as in this case, he captures a group of people looking through stereoscopes.

levinstein_leon_2012_114_18Leon Levinstein, [People looking through stereoscopes on street, India], 1978 (2012.114.18)

Many of Levinstein’s photographs describe or allude to hardship. But in the ICP Collection it is the preserved moments of tenderness that stand out to me. He seems especially preoccupied with the relationship, the close bond, between fathers and their children. This lovely scene from Central Park captures the essence of this series.

levinstein_leon_2012_114_29Leon Levinstein, [Central Park, New York], ca. 1968 (2012.114.29)

Kirsti Svenning, ICP Summer Intern

Kirsti is the Communications Advisor at the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo

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