History is full of artists whose work never caught on during their lifetime only to leave them embittered and resentful that the world didn’t see their greatness. There are many others whose work was recognized by a few but the artist was his or her own worst enemy in regard to making the recognition public. Some even had people around them willing to help promote their work yet they acted too difficult to help. Leon Levinstein was a photographer who experienced all of the conflicts above. As remembered by Helen Gee, the owner of the Limelight Gallery, “Success will come to Levinstein only when he’s no longer around to stand in its way.”
It is not the world at large Levinstein was looking at with his camera but its inhabitants. In fact, if one scours Levinstein’s oeuvre, most all of the images describe a face or limbs but somehow avoid describing much at all about the world that surrounds them. As viewers, we have almost no notion of how these characters fit into the world at the moment of the shutter’s release. His is a tunnel vision reliant on bare elements boxed by the edges of his tightly cropped frames.
In some of the photographs he employs perspectives that would seem to have their roots in constructivism with low angles and looming diagonals. But unlike the more common use of these vantage points to create heroic and idealized versions of mankind, Levinstein’s mankind is one that struggles to exist and suffers with the daily toil.
In reading about Levinstein’s life he comes across as photography’s lonely soul. He was a man who avoided intimacy with others throughout most of his life and never had a serious relationship other than with photography. Perhaps this accounts for why his photos concentrate so heavily on the human face and gesture; it was his only way of connecting. I am always a bit weary of using photographs as a barometer of an artist’s psyche but there is a remarkable correlation.
There are only two books that I am aware of that concentrate on Levinstein. The first is a 1995 catalog from the National Gallery of Canada called The Moment of Exposure. Moment of Exposure contains 72 duotone reproductions of Levinstein’s finer photographs alongside essays by Bob Shamis and Max Kozloff. This is the easier of the two to find and serves as a fine introduction to Levinstein’s work and biography but the quality of materials and overall tone feels typical of a gallery catalog.
Leon Levinstein Obsession from Editions Leo Scheer published in 2000 is a much broader collection of his work in a slightly more handsome but ultimately flawed package. It contains 194 duotone photographs and essays by the authors Sam Stourdze, Helen Gee and A.D. Coleman.
The book breaks his work up into groups, IE: Coney Island, Heads, Celebration,
The other bothersome aspect with the book is the reproductions. In many of the images, the resolution of the scans used is not high enough to support the output size and the result is noticeable pixels that disrupt the tonalities and sharpness.
This edition was printed in 2500 hardcover copies with 100 set aside as a limited numbered edition. The limited edition comes with Levinstein’s famous image of the handball players.
Levinstein, in my mind, is a large talent that may never get what he deserved. Even these two titles try to celebrate his work but are largely flawed and help keep his status in the margins. Where is the ultimate book that will celebrate this remarkable artist in a way that is rich in quality and not overshadowed by sadness and neglect?