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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