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Hipsters, Hustlers, and Handball Players

The Met honors one of black-and-white photography's greatest unsung heroes

by Margaret Kaminski in Culture on 08 June 2010

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Receiving due credit for his talent in a medium he mostly considered a hobby, the impressive oeuvre left behind by Leon Levinstein is on display in career retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Hipsters, Hustlers, and Handball Players: Leon Levinstein's New York Photographs, 1950–1980" features 45 rarely-before-seen photos of New York City life shot by the solemn photographer.

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Spanning Coney Island to the Lower East Side, fur coats to paper-bag hats and couples in love to strangers in arguments, Levinstein's intriguing collection of subtle gestures and compelling subjects, all in black and white, demonstrates his discomfort interacting with society despite his sincere interest in it.

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Rather than working by assignment like his more well-known contemporaries—such as Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, or Garry Winogrand—Levinstein instead chose to work full-time in advertising, pursuing photography only in his spare time.

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With the exception of one solo exhibition at Helen Gee's Limelight Gallery in 1956, and several group shows at the Museum of Modern Art, Levinstein never received much fame in his lifetime. He passed away in 1988 without a family or many close friends, his work known and appreciated almost exclusively by other photographers or specialists.

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Fans of Levinstein's work hope that the Met exhibition will help bring his work some of the appreciation and fame that it has long deserved. The show runs through 17 October 2010.

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