"Hipsters, Hustlers, and Handball Players: Leon Levinstein's New York Photographs, 1950--1980"
A master of street photography resurfaces at the Met.
Mon Jun 14 2010
Untitled, New York City, 1960s--70s
Time Out Ratings<strong>Rating: </strong>5/5
Though it's hard to imagine now, there was a point when New York was truly the creative engine of the international art scene, and not just for its brokerage houses or as the setting for dubious distractions like Bravo's reality show Work of Art. Instead of being simply the largest node in a global network of art centers, Gotham was a unique destination, in which the conditions of place—the sense of possibility crackling through neighborhoods arrayed along its famous grid—served as both attractions and inspirations for artistic innovators.
That all began to change about a generation ago, as gentrification smothered the city in upscale conformity. But while there's never any percentage in mourning a past that was supposedly more glorious than the present, there are times when you can't avoid feeling a pang for what's been lost. I experienced such a moment while viewing the Met's survey of Leon Levinstein.
Levinstein (1910--1988), who hailed from West Virginia, was perhaps the least well-known of a group of midcentury New York photographers (which included Helen Levitt and William Klein) who hit the asphalt, cameras in hand, to find...well, whatever a peculiar alchemy of chance and reflex could provide. Street photography certainly wasn't invented here, but it reached a level of intensity in New York unmatched anywhere else, particularly during the decades immediately following World War II. More poignantly, perhaps, one can argue that it was here where the genre was eclipsed, as artists like Cindy Sherman redirected the lens away from the world of the real to the realm of the simulacrum.
That idea of authenticity, ineffably captured as a decisive instance on a strip of light-sensitive celluloid, was ridden out of town a long time ago by postmodern theorists and certainly seems quaint today, but its power, as fixed in black and white by Levinstein, is undeniable. His mtier was a kind of reductivist monumentality, in which he captured his subjects—ordinary New Yorkers going about their business—in close-up, a technique commonly associated with cinema, to create images that were at once abstract and pregnant with narrative.
Like Weegee and Diane Arbus, Levinstein had a taste for the offbeat and grotesque (he often zeroed in on corpulent pedestrians; midsections and backsides, absent any trace of individuality, were a frequent motif). Also like them, he could be accused of engaging in a form of slumming. But he was less interested in abjection than he was in grandeur, and in this respect, the people in his photos are imbued with a sculptural nobility that simply doesn't exist in the work of either Weegee or Arbus. More often than not, the "hipsters, hustlers and handball players" of the show's title loom into the lens, crowding out background details. We get only fragments of the metropolis around them: a bit of stoop or curbstone, or a patch of sand out at Coney Island. Yet the pictures themselves express a sense of velocity, of lives hurtling toward some destiny that's as heroic as it is bleak. What's remarkable about Levinstein is that his framing—both epic and destabilizing—stands in for the pitiless dynamic of New York itself.
The profile of the eponymous gent in Close-up Portrait of Man on Street, for example, is all heavy brows, fleshy nose and grimly set chin, covered in a fine sheen of perspiration that matches his greasy hair. He looks like Lurch from The Addams Family, but the way Levinstein captures the midday sun casting deep, faceted shadows across his cheek suggests an establishing shot for a film noir starring an Easter Island moai. In Untitled (Woman in Dark, Short-Sleeved Dress), an encounter at a crosswalk between an obese white woman and a slender black man moving away from her at a right angle becomes a dance of euclidean perfection. In Untitled (Man in Boots Walking and Adjusting His Collar), a hipster is caught in a reverie of personal reinvention.
Levinstein never dated his photos, which were taken between the 1950s and the '80s, and that omission lends them a timeless quality. But they also document New York at a crucial moment, as global capitalism transformed the urban Jurassic into an anodyne version of itself. They are a reminder that giants once walked where midgets fear to tread.
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