Leon Levinstein: Photography Reveals How Little We See

In the 1960s, while now-icon­ic pho­tog­ra­phers like Robert Frank and Diane Arbus were busy becom­ing icon­ic — apply­ing for grants, enter­ing award shows, hus­tling for high-pro­file mag­a­zine assign­ments — Leon Levin­stein was blend­ing into crowds, unno­ticed, doc­u­ment­ing street life and the era’s hip­sters: beach bums, down­town der­ri­eres, street hus­tlers. An unsung pho­tog­ra­phy hero of the 20th cen­tu­ry, Levin­stein craft­ed and inhab­it­ed a lone­ly, her­mit-like world behind his lens, yet man­aged to cap­ture the rich­ness of the world in front of it with remark­able ele­gance and vig­or.

In fan­tas­tic 1988 inter­view recent­ly fea­tured on NPR, the lone pho­tog­ra­ph­er shares his cre­ative ethos and his ulti­mate approach to his art: “You got­ta be alone and work alone. It’s a lone­ly occu­pa­tion, if you wan­na call it that.”

Image © Howard Green­berg Gallery

Image © Howard Green­berg Gallery

What makes Levin­stein a par­tic­u­lar­ly unlike­ly mas­ter of street pho­tog­ra­phy — or, per­haps, pre­cise­ly what makes him a mas­ter — is that he nev­er received any for­mal train­ing in pho­tog­ra­phy. Instead, he exit­ed the army, bought him­self a used cam­era, and qui­et­ly set to shoot­ing.

“A good pho­to­graph will prove to the view­er how lit­tle our eyes per­mit us to see. Most peo­ple only see what they have always seen and what they expect to see. Where a pho­tog­ra­ph­er, if he’s good, will see every­thing.”

Image © Howard Green­berg Gallery

Image © Howard Green­berg Gallery

This month, a new exhi­bi­tion at New York’s Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art pays homage to the obscure pho­tog­ra­ph­er. Hip­sters, Hus­tlers, and Hand­ball Play­ers: Leon Levin­stein’s New York Pho­tographs, 1950–1980 is as much a ret­ro­spec­tive of Levin­stein’s work as it is a unique time cap­sule of the era’s every­day cul­ture-mak­ers. You can view the col­lec­tion of pho­tographs on the muse­um’s web­site and catch the exhi­bi­tion at the Met until Octo­ber 17.

Maria Popo­va is the founder and edi­tor in chief of Brain Pick­ings, a curat­ed inven­to­ry of eclec­tic inter­est­ing­ness and indis­crim­i­nate curios­i­ty. She writes for Wired UK, GOOD Mag­a­zine, Big­Think and Huff­in­g­ton Post, and spends a dis­turb­ing amount of time on Twit­ter.

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