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‘Obsessively’ photographing strangers on the street

Though he was a graphic designer by trade, Leon Levinstein’s photographs appeared in books and magazines in the 1950s and 60s. Even as a master of street photography, he was not interested in fame or glory.

Born in West Virginia in 1910, Levinstein moved to New York City 36 years later, where he “obsessively” photographed strangers on the street, according to a statement released by the Steven Kasher Gallery, which is currently exhibiting more than 50 black-and-white prints.

He captured people in natural moments, often remaining unnoticed himself.

“He framed the faces, flesh, poses, and movements of his fellow city dwellers: couples, kids, big shots, beggars, prostitutes, proselytizers, society ladies, sunbathers, and characters of all stripes,” the statement says.

Levinstein was mentored by renowned photographer and artistic director of “Harper’s Bazaar” magazine, Alexey Brodovitch.

In 1975, he was presented the Guggenheim Fellowship, an award given to those who have “demonstrated exceptional capacity for productive scholarship or exceptional creative ability in the arts,” according to the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation website.

He preferred the Rollei camera rather than the widely used Leica favored by other street photographers of the day and rarely worked on assignments, unlike his contemporaries.

“I want my photographs to be spontaneous rather than contrived,” he once said. “For that reason, I prefer to work without any one specific idea in mind.”

He never married and had few friends. He sometimes alienated people who wanted to advance his career, but his lonely habits helped him blend into the crowds, and his candid shots reveal observations that others might have missed.

“Like no other photographer I know Leon Levinstein saw the fears and hopes, the postures and expressions of his fellow New Yorkers and turned them into monumental images,” gallery owner Steve Kasher said in a statement to CNN. “They seem particularly relevant right now in light of the recent challenges that New Yorkers have been going through and their resilient response.”

Levinstein’s images can be seen on display at the Steven Kasher Gallery through December 22.

- Elizabeth I. Johnson, CNN

All images are courtesy of Steven Kasher Gallery, New York, Copyright Howard Greenberg Gallery.