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Levinstein

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Special Exhibition: Hipsters, Hustlers, and Handball Players: Leon Levinstein's New York Photographs, 1950–1980

Program information

In excerpts from a 1988 archival recording, photographer Leon Levinstein talks about his work and the experience of photographing in the streets of New York. The excerpts are introduced by Curator Jeff Rosenheim and filmmaker-photographer Jem Cohen.

Hipsters, Hustlers, and Handball Players

Leon Levinstein's New York Photographs, 1950–1980

June 8–October 17, 2010

Submit your own photographs to our "New York City through Its People" Flickr group.

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.

Levinstein was mentored and supported by Alexey Brodovitch, artistic director of Harper's Bazaar, and Edward Steichen, the eminent photographer and curator at The Museum of Modern Art in New York, who both recognized his unique talent in the medium of photography. He was also greatly influenced by workshops led by the distinguished photographer and teacher Sid Grossman.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Levinstein's work appeared frequently in photography magazines and books alongside that of his peers, such as Robert Frank, Richard Avedon, and Diane Arbus. Nonetheless, he rarely worked on assignment, as they often did; nor did he ever produce his own book of photographs. Instead, he worked as a graphic designer and devoted his evenings and weekends to photography. In 1975, Levinstein received a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation to "photograph as wide a spectrum of the American scene as my experience and vision will allow. . . . I want my photographs to be spontaneous rather than contrived." Despite this recognition of his achievement, he never seemed able to fit into the commercial photography market that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, and consequently, his powerful body of work continues to be known mainly by other photographers and by specialists in the field.

During his lifetime, Levinstein's photographs were featured in a single solo exhibition—at Helen Gee's Limelight Gallery in 1956—and in numerous group exhibitions at The Museum of Modern Art, including Steichen's famous 1955 exhibition The Family of Man. Levinstein's work was also included in group exhibitions at The Metropolitan Museum of Art; International Center of Photography, New York; Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; and Barbican Art Gallery, London. Posthumous solo exhibitions have been organized by The National Gallery, Ottawa, Canada, in 1995 and the Centre Photographic d'Île-de-France, Pontault-Combault, France, in 2000.