30
Sep
10

Exhibition: ‘Hipsters, Hustlers, and Handball Players: Leon Levinstein’s New York Photographs, 1950-1980’ at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Exhibition dates: 8th June – 17th October 2010

 

Leon Levinstein. 'Handball Players, Lower East Side, NY' 1950s-1960s

 

Leon Levinstein (American, 1910-1988)
Handball Players, Lower East Side, NY
c. 1950s-1960s
Gelatin silver print
Purchase, The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Gift, through Joyce and Robert Menschel, 1987
© Howard Greenberg Gallery

 

 

Although taken in the same city at around the same period as the work of Helen Levitt, these photographs by Leon Levinstein have less formality in their composition and definitely possess a more eclectic style evidenced by the dissection and placement of bodies within the image frame. This is not to denigrate either artist but merely to observe how two great photographers can see the same city in totally different ways. In both previsualisation was strong, the camera freezing what is placed before the lens in a balletic display that captured “just what you see.”

Marcus

.
Many thankx to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting.

 

Leon Levinstein. 'Nuclear Protest, Wall Street' 1970s

 

Leon Levinstein (American, 1910-1988)
Nuclear Protest, Wall Street
1970s
Gelatin silver print
Gift of Gary Davis, 2009
© Howard Greenberg Gallery

 

Leon Levinstein. 'Street Scene - Elderly Man Walking with Cane, New York City' 1970s

 

Leon Levinstein (American, 1910-1988)
Street Scene: Elderly Man Walking with Cane, New York City
1970s
Gelatin silver print
Gift of Gary Davis, 2009
© Howard Greenberg Gallery

 

Leon Levinstein. 'Street Scene - Woman in Blonde Wig and Tight Dress, New York City' 1960s

 

Leon Levinstein (American, 1910-1988)
Street Scene: Woman in Blonde Wig and Tight Dress, New York City
1960s
Gelatin silver print
Gift of Gary Davis, 2009
© Howard Greenberg Gallery

 

 

A master of classic American street photography, Leon Levinstein (American, 1910–1988) 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. From June 8 through October 17, 2010, The Metropolitan Museum of Art presents Hipsters, Hustlers, and Handball Players: Leon Levinstein’s New York Photographs, 1950-1980. This exhibition, drawn exclusively from the Metropolitan’s collection, features 44 photographs that reflect Levinstein’s fearless approach to the medium. Levinstein’s graphic virtuosity – seen in raw, expressive gestures and seemingly monumental bodies – is balanced by an unusual compassion for his off-beat subjects from the demimonde.

Born in West Virginia in 1910, Levinstein moved to New York in 1946 and spent the next 35 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, proselytisers, society ladies, and characters of all stripes.

Although he was a life-long loner, 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, both of whom recognised 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.

Press release from The Metropolitan Museum of Art website [Online] Cited 28/09/2010 no longer available online

 

Leon Levinstein. 'Street Scene - Man in Boots Walking and Adjusting His Collar, New York City' 1960s-1970s

 

Leon Levinstein (American, 1910-1988)
Street Scene: Man in Boots Walking and Adjusting His Collar, New York City
c. 1960s-1970s
Gelatin silver print
Gift of Gary Davis, 2007
© Howard Greenberg Gallery

 

Leon Levinstein. 'Street Scene - Man Resting Foot on Lip of Trashcan, New York City' 1970s

 

Leon Levinstein (American, 1910-1988)
Street Scene: Man Resting Foot on Lip of Trashcan, New York City
1970s
Gelatin silver print
Gift of Gary Davis, 2009
© Howard Greenberg Gallery

 

 

That idea of authenticity, ineffably captured as a decisive instance on a strip of light-sensitive celluloid, was ridden out of town a long time ago by postmodern theorists and certainly seems quaint today, but its power, as fixed in black and white by Levinstein, is undeniable. His mtier was a kind of reductivist monumentality, in which he captured his subjects – ordinary New Yorkers going about their business – in close-up, a technique commonly associated with cinema, to create images that were at once abstract and pregnant with narrative.

Like Weegee and Diane Arbus, Levinstein had a taste for the offbeat and grotesque (he often zeroed in on corpulent pedestrians; midsections and backsides, absent any trace of individuality, were a frequent motif). Also like them, he could be accused of engaging in a form of slumming. But he was less interested in abjection than he was in grandeur, and in this respect, the people in his photos are imbued with a sculptural nobility that simply doesn’t exist in the work of either Weegee or Arbus. More often than not, the “hipsters, hustlers and handball players” of the show’s title loom into the lens, crowding out background details. We get only fragments of the metropolis around them: a bit of stoop or curbstone, or a patch of sand out at Coney Island. Yet the pictures themselves express a sense of velocity, of lives hurtling toward some destiny that’s as heroic as it is bleak. What’s remarkable about Levinstein is that his framing – both epic and destabilising – stands in for the pitiless dynamic of New York itself.

Howard Halle. “Hipsters, Hustlers, and Handball Players: Leon Levinstein’s New York Photographs, 1950-1980,” on the Time Out New York website, Monday June 14, 2010 [Online] Cited 26/12/2019

 

Leon Levinstein. 'Street Scene - Woman in Striped Dress on Stoop, New York City' 1970s

 

Leon Levinstein (American, 1910-1988)
Street Scene: Woman in Striped Dress on Stoop, New York City
1970s
Gelatin silver print
Gift of Gary Davis, 2007
© Howard Greenberg Gallery

 

Leon Levinstein. 'Street Scene - Young Man Leaning against Shopfront Window, New York City?' 1972

 

Leon Levinstein (American, 1910-1988)
Street Scene: Young Man Leaning against Shopfront Window, New York City?
1972
Gelatin silver print
Gift of Gary Davis, 2008
© Howard Greenberg Gallery

 

 

The Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street
New York, New York 10028-0198
Information: 212-535-7710

Opening hours:
Sunday – Thursday: 10.00 am – 5.30 pm
Friday and Saturday: 10.00 am – 9.00 pm

The Metropolitan Museum of Art website

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1 Response to “Exhibition: ‘Hipsters, Hustlers, and Handball Players: Leon Levinstein’s New York Photographs, 1950-1980’ at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York”


  1. October 1, 2010 at 2:03 am

    I like the composition of these photos very much.


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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His art work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes Art Blart, a photographic archive and form of cultural memory, which posts mainly photography exhibitions from around the world. He holds a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne, a Master of Arts (Fine Art Photography) from RMIT University, and a Master of Art Curatorship from the University of Melbourne.

Marcus Bunyan black and white archive: ‘Padlocks/People’ 1994-96

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