Street Scenes Come to Life at the Met

Leon Levinstein’s “Hipsters, Hustlers and Handball Players” on Display Now


Published: September 22, 2010

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is a unique place where time travel is simply inevitable. For example, walking into a room full of Ancient Greek sculptures and architectural works, you feel and see the cultural differences between our world today and the world of years ago. Immediately, you are transported into a time period where sports was as prominent as politics.

Similarly, walking through the Met exhibition, “Hipsters, Hustlers and Handball Players: Leon Levinstein’s New York Photographs, 1950-1980,” which runs until Oct. 17, you feel as if you just stepped back into the hip, funky scene of 1950s New York. However, with this nostalgic effect comes a catch. Like a shock of cold air when you first step outside on a winter morning, Levinstein’s strange yet creative candids are blunt, in your face and unrelenting.

The notorious street photographer is well known for his black and white photographs of strangers in the neighborhoods of New York City and Coney Island, a technique that, in some ways, is lost in today’s art. With this colorless version of real life, pose, expression and movement become a focus for Levinstein and viewers.

Subjects range from children to young couples, prostitutes, businessmen and many more. No one is too good or too malcontent for his pictures. Mentored by prominent figures such as Harper’s Bazaar’s artistic director Alexey Brodovitch and influenced by photographer Sid Grossman, Levinstein fearlessly continued to use street life as a theme though most thought it unnecessary at the time. In the 1955 issue of Photography Annual, the artist explains his M.O. in a few short words:  “I walk, I look, I see, I stop, I photograph.”

The exhibit features 44 of his best works, each seemingly as arbitrary as the next. To add to the anonymous feel of his subjects Levinstein did not name most of the photos. Ironically, the ones that are named are even more puzzling, allowing the viewer to create his or her own explanation of the scenes on display.

A photo entitled “New York” features a reversed family portrait consisting of three people lying on the beach at Coney Island. The name at first seems to be a misfit for the picture but after carefully looking over the picture, you begin to come up with an interpretation of the photo. At first, it seems like the mother is unconscious, and the little boy is hovering over her face trying to revive her while the father watches anxiously. But a closer look reveals that the mother is actually sleeping, and the father and son are watching her intently, possibly concocting some trick to play. Perhaps the mother had other plans for her life before she met the husband, or had her son, unintentionally derailing her aspirations. New York is known to be the city where all dreams are possible, right?

Many of Levinstein’s portraits are taken from the backside of a person. This reoccurring angle is exemplified by a photo of a man fixing his afro at a store window. With a fixed stance and his jacket slung over his shoulders, the man seems as if there isn’t a care in the world for him at the moment; all that matters is his appearance, specifically his hair. This photo is nameless, but creatively exudes the carefree attitude of a young teenager in the ’50s.

“Hipsters, Hustlers and Handball Players” is a test for your imagination, while providing a raw depiction of life at the same time. Visitors get the benefit of adding their own “color” to these near-abstract portraits. A curator surmised these sentiments perfectly when, forced to compare Levinstein’s photographs to another artist’s, he wasn’t able to fully enjoy them: “These photos are real; it’s life. I wasn’t able to see that by comparing it to the other art, which was joyous. I could appreciate it more now because I see the honesty.”