Leon Levinstein is best known for his photographic investigations of different New York neighborhoods: Times Square, the Lower East Side, and Coney Island in particular. An exhibition at the Steven Kasher gallery, on view until December 22, demonstrates Levinstein’s technical virtuosity and his contributions to the history of the medium.
Born in West Virginia in 1910, Levinstein moved to New York in 1946, where he spent the next 35 years taking pictures of strangers in the streets of his adopted city. Levinstein got close to his subjects, searching for a certain pose, a gesture, a scene. He framed the faces and movements of the citizens of New York: couples, children and members of high society, but also beggars, prostitutes and proselytizers.
The photographer met important photography figures like Alexey Brodovitch, the artistic director of Harper’s Bazaar, and the MoMA curator Edward Steichen, both of whom quickly recognized Levinstein’s talent. He was heavily influenced by Sid Grossman, a professor and a member of the Photo League. In the 1950s and 1960s, his work frequently appeared in magazines alongside photographs by Robert Frank, Richard Avedon and Diane Arbus.
Levinstein kept his distance from the art world. He saw solitude as a form of protection. Like a well-intentioned voyeur, he prowled the city alone, observing things that others failed to notice. In an interview in the 1980s, he said: “You have to be alone and work alone. It’s a lonely occupation.” Levinstein never published his photographs in a collection. He preferred to spend his time taking more and more pictures, which he did until his death in 1988. Perhaps Levinstein suffered from an illness we rarely see today: modesty.