The Arty Semite

Leon Levinstein's Powerful, Pitiless Street Photography

By Benjamin Ivry

  • Print
  • Share Share

Some Jewish photographers embrace subject matter which plays better overseas than in the United States. One example is Weegee, born Usher Fellig in Złoczów, whose photos of low class nightlife and crime were infused with a raucous gusto that charmed Europe decades before he received adequate recognition in America.

Leon Levinstein, an even more difficult case than Weegee because he was a less exuberant slummer, is being honored from June 8 to October 17 at the Metropolitan Museum with the exhibit “Hipsters, Hustlers, and Handball Players: Leon Levinstein’s New York Photographs, 1950–1980.”

The Met is not issuing an exhibit catalog, so the best book on Levinstein will remain a lavish album from Paris’s Les éditions Léo Scheer by photo curator Sam Stourdzé. In it, we learn that Levinstein came late to photography, at around age 35, and it remained a mere avocation while he kept his day job at a Manhattan ad agency.

Born in West Virginia in 1910, Levinstein’s shock at discovering New York in 1946 remained a permanent motivating force of his artistry. He studied with the socially aware photographer Sid Grossman, co-founder with Sol Libsohn of New York’s Photo League, where other gifted Jewish photographers such as Jerome Liebling, Aaron Siskind and Morris Engel also gathered.

Levinstein’s “Prospect Park, 1950” shows a barely visible, joyous child among Hasidim, who retain somber dignity even as they stretch out on the grass. The fiercely coiled bodies in Levinstein’s “Handball Players, Houston Street, New York, 1969” seem like a visual quote from “Handball,” the 1939 Tempera on paper by Ben Shahn.

In Levinstein’s “Mother with Child, 1955” a woman’s eyes goggle with emotion, perhaps at some unseen horror. “Mother with Child, 1955” might be an image from a deportation camp, but then, big city life is like a permanent displacement for some. Levinstein’s “New Orleans, 1975” depicts an almost nude, emaciated New Orleans male reveler extending a plastic cup of beer in a quasi-crucified pose, an image of simultaneous self-indulgence and death which appears to prefigure the AIDS era.

In “Coney Island, ca. 1954,” Levinstein is no celebrant of beach fun, regardless of age and ugliness, unlike the exuberant images of Lisette Model. Instead, Levinstein’s unflinching view of weather-beaten bodies and body parts is a photographic equivalent of talking tachlis, which makes his artistry both difficult and commanding.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Hipsters Hustlers and Handball Players, Exhibits, Aaron Siskind, Jerome Liebling, Leon Levinstein, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Morris Engel, Photo League, Photography, Prospect Park, Sid Grossman, Sol Libsohn, Usher Fellig, Weegee

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.