New York Photo Review
NYPR Archives - 2010

Leon Levinstein
Hipsters, Hustlers, and Handball Players: Leon Levinstein's New York Photographs, 1950-1980.
Leon Levinstein, “Handball Players, Lower East Side, NY”, c 1950-60

Known for a handful of superb images in a large body of lesser work, Leon Levinstein never achieved the iconic status of an Henri Cartier-Bresson, or even of a Lisette Model, whose work, his, in so many ways, resembles.

Yet he is an archetypal New York street photographer of the l950’s and 60’s.

Carrying forward the legacy of the Photo League with its focus on the poor and disenfranchised, Levinstein honed in on itinerants and hustlers, making himself most at home in the theater of the grotesque. Unlike Europe, street life in America is the province of the poor; rich neighborhoods are ostentatiously empty. (My brother was once stopped by the police for walking in Beverly Hills.) Practicing the kind of candid camerawork that later became morally suspect but at the time was considered socially relevant, Levinstein was most celebrated for his Coney Island images where his up close and personal style was particularly effective. His best work has the same heft as Model’s (whose husband it turns out was his painting teacher,) while his cut-off torsos and clipped faces anticipate those of Mark Cohen several generations later.

 by unidentified photographer.
Leon Levinstein, “Street Scene: Woman in Blonde Wig and TIght Dress, New York City” c 1960’s

On the whole his style has an American artlessness with its typical emphasis on subject matter at the expense of form. But once in a while this gives way to a feeling for mass and shape, notably in his shots of handball players, images strikingly similar to those of Ben Shaun, the painter and photographer whose work he most likely knew.

The new show at the Metropolitan, Hipsters, Hustlers, and Handball Players, offers an interesting rather than brilliant sampling of Levinstein’s work, much of it second tier. As with the Henri Cartier-Bresson show at MOMA, his near misses often reveal more about his working habits than his direct hits. Frequently we see him in search mode, looking for the right material, but not quite finding it, yet taking the shot anyway—as a kind of memo to himself, perhaps, to file away for future reference. If he did not always succeed, when he did there was a raw power in his images rarely equaled. And while this is not a perfect Levinstein show, it is a welcome opportunity to see a sizable selection of this all-too neglected photographer’s work.

Leon Levinstein
Hipsters, Hustlers, and Handball Players: Leon Levinstein's New York Photographs, 1950-1980.

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