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Leon Levinstein takes New York

One of Levinstein’s sunbathers. More photos after the text.

How is it that a photographer like Leon Levinstein – a West Virginia boy who moved to New York in 1946 and took some of the most iconic photographs of the city and its inhabitants, a man whose work is compared to and was shown with Edward Steichen, Richard Avedon, Robert Frank, Diane Arbus and the like – how is it that a talented guy like that worked a day job his whole life and remained relatively obscure while his contemporaries are still known today around the world?

One reason, I’d wager, is because unlike most photographers of the time, Levinstein never worked on assignment and he never published a collection of his work, so his photographs never reached the world outside his peers. He worked as a graphic designer by day where he was mentored by Alexey Brodovitch, the Haper’s Bazaar art director who revolutionized the magazine industry, and focused on photography on evenings and weekends. In 1975 the Guggenheim Foundation recognized him with a grant, but even so he never managed to break through with commercial success. In fact, Levinstein had only had one solo show in his lifetime, at the Limelight Gallery in Greenwich Village in 1956. Posthumously, however, he’s fared better with two solo exhibitions in Canada in 1995 and in France in 2000.

After ten years, Levinstein’s work is overdue for some public attention and “Hipsters, Hustlers and Handball Players” opens at the Met today. The exhibition includes about 40 of Levinstein’s photographs from the Met’s private collection that show “his fellow city dwellers in their myriad guises: sunbathers, young couples, children, businessmen, beggars, prostitutes, proselytizers, society ladies, and characters of all stripes.”

“Hipsters, Hustlers and Handball Players: Leon Levinstein’s New York Photographs, 1950-1980″ at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, June 8 – October 17, 2010.