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!
  • Step into the Iron Dome with Tuvia Tenenbom.
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel: http://jd.fo/i4UDl
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • 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.