A favorable Weegee reference in the NY Times:
June 24, 2010
Streetwise New Yorkers Caught in Their Unguarded Moments
By K. JOHNSON
If you wanted to assemble a compendium of street photography clichés, you could simplify the task by picking from “Hipsters, Hustlers and Handball Players: Leon Levinstein’s New York Photographs, 1950-80” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Mr. Levinstein (1910-1988) was not a bad photographer. Every one of the 45 black-and-white works on view is impeccably composed and printed. But viewed against the background of masters of the genre like Weegee, Robert Frank and Tina Modotti, Mr. Levinstein’s focus on funny, scary, repulsive and eccentric characters and the seamier sides of the city looks pretty routine.
Born in West Virginia, Mr. Levinstein moved to New York in 1946 and supported himself as a graphic designer while prowling the streets with camera in hand in his spare time. Alexey Brodovitch, artistic director of Harper’s Bazaar, spotted and supported his talent, and Edward Steichen included him in the hugely popular 1955 exhibition “The Family of Man” at the Museum of Modern Art. But having had only one solo exhibition and having produced no books of photographs during his lifetime, he is not well known today.
The show was organized by Jeff L. Rosenheim, a Met photography curator, who selected from 100 Levinstein photographs in the museum’s collection, most of which were recently given by the collector Gary Davis.
There is a paradox in Levinstein’s approach that is shared by legions of greater and lesser street photographers: he was hunting for the poetry of real life, but what he shot was generally the sort of thing that street photographers generally shoot. Not the types of people or situations that you barely notice because they are so ordinary, but people who seem strange, marginal or ridiculous. The Beat generation’s coolly noirish, anti-bourgeois spirit animates his work.
Numerous pictures have fun with sartorial peacocks like the guy in the Stars-and-Stripes-patterned bell-bottom outfit and the dandy in the zoot suit and bowler hat. (Mr. Levinstein did not title or date his photographs; exhibition wall labels identify them by subject and approximate decade.) Overweight women in short, tight dresses are a favorite subject. The image of a plus-size lady standing at a street corner wearing an elaborately curled platinum wig could be a Diane Arbus outtake. The satire is not always without affection, as in the picture of two short, elderly gents strolling side by side in boxy plaid jackets.
More often, though, aiming from oblique angles, Mr. Levinstein put his subjects in unflattering light. The man with a rotund stomach is cropped at the neck so that he seems the embodiment of All-American gluttony.
Another man, with his rugged, monumental head filling the whole picture, the hollows of his gaunt face deeply shadowed, looks as if he could have modeled for the ancient sculptors of Easter Island.
Mr. Levinstein evidently was not a sexual predator, but he did produce the requisite pictures of underdressed young women. Shot from behind, a shapely specimen leaning into an open car window — a prostitute, perhaps — wears short shorts that fail to cover her underwear fully. Also in this vein are examples of the standard device of people looking at other people, as in the image of a young man studying a svelte woman in scanty summer wear.
Some photographs teeter on the brink of voyeuristic cruelty. The sagging, corpulent old woman in a bathing suit with a brown paper bag for a hat glares at the camera with what seems like a lifetime of stored-up rage. In other pictures you feel condescension masquerading as social sympathy, as in generic images of emaciated women — drug addicts, no doubt — sitting exhaustedly on stoops. Couples and families lying on the crowded sands of Coney Island are works of mandarin Social Realism.
Political subjects are largely absent. The picture of a young, female nuclear war protester in 1970s-style clothes lying down on the pavement in an act of passive resistance is exceptional for its historic interest. But for the most part, Mr. Levinstein’s photographs seem vaguely timeless.
The exhibition’s most remarkable image pictures two handball players in black pants in action. Viewed from behind, one in the foreground hovers off the ground just after executing a shot, as his opponent, close to the wall in a balletic posture, awaits the rebound. Cartier-Bresson would have envied this magic moment.
(Of course it’s an absurd review, Leon is obviously a great photographer, and one of the “masters of the genre.”)