Leon Levinstein - his words and thoughts

Leon Levinstein, as you might have guessed is an artist whose work means a great deal to me. I've read about his life and seen a lot of his published work, and now with the recent interview, actually heard his voice and his views. I've always admired his work but now with the interview something extra, something I hadn't considered before, occurs to me.

That there's something oddly heroic about the way he carried himself. That despite the often well intentioned support of others, such as Helen Gee and the (many) possibilities for promotion available to him at key points in his life, he chose to take a willfully stubborn but quite defiant alternative view of himself and his work.

The path Levinstein chose is not for everyone, that's for sure.

It demands an almost monastic devotion to work that demands personal sacrifices many lesser artists would find daunting and a strength of will, a sense of purpose, that others would find impossible to sustain and maintain. But his work shows that his efforts, whatever the cost to him personally, were not wasted.

Today's photography scene (and also to some extent that of Levinstein's era) is full of characters with expansive ego's, who seem to concentrate their energies on self publicity and self aggrandisement, rather than choosing to focus their time and talent on creating original and genuinely non-derivative creative work.

Leon Levinstein was different. He did exactly what he said he would do during his lifetime and left us all,as a result of his efforts, a lasting legacy of wonderfully rich and idiosyncratic photogoraphy.

Do yourself a favour and check out some of the books mentioned in my previous post or better yet, see some of his original prints if you can on a gallery wall.

You'll be glad you made the effort!


Excerpted below are his comments (from the audio interview posted yesterday.)

(Words in italics below are mine.)

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If you look at my pictures, you’ll see, I didn’t go into places ....where only Miss Vanderbilt or Miss Rockefeller is living, you know.

I go in all type of neighborhoods. And naturally you use discretion.

It’s very important to use discretion. You don’t ....all of sudden become a fool, because it can be a bit dangerous....you’re not going to get shot, but you could, you know, get into a fight, break your equipment.

Days by, they didn’t (in the past) know what the lens was. They never had a camera. Now everybody knows.

Everybody has a camera and they know the lens...what the lens is for. And if it’s pointed at them, they know their picture’s being taken.
(In the past) they weren’t sure, because they never had a camera, especially the older people.

But most people don’t particularly care to be photographed. And if you ask them, the picture’s ruined. You know, they pose; it’s no good....what you want to see is something that’s spontaneous. You don’t want to have them posing for you.

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...It’s sort of a vicarious experience when you photograph. Because you’re always on the outside. They’re having a good time there, maybe a family, or a couple families, having a picnic, eating this fried chicken and potato salad and all that junk. And you’re on the outside, you know, trying to sneak a picture.

You walk around them and around them and look and look and see if for a moment something might happen, and they don’t invite you to sit down and have fried chicken. You’re always on the outside.

And then you go somewhere else, but again you’re on the outside. And if you have somebody with you it’s no good, they detract you from what you’re doing. So you got to be alone and work alone. And it’s a lonely—a very lonely occupation, if you want to call it that.

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One thing I always try to do, if possible, is never to speak mildly or softly. I don’t think any photographer should. You should speak loud and clear. And that’s the way I try to take my pictures. Not, you know, looking for poetic things. If there should be, fine. But I make, you know, as strong a statement as I possibly can. And that probably would be a better way to say it.

And, another thing, I never go out with any intentions of photographing any particular thing. I let anything that comes within my sight or in my path that excites me to photograph, I’ll photograph.

I don’t care what it is. But I never go out there and say, "Well, I’m going to look for certain type of pictures today"—maybe, you know, "It'll be great art, or I can sell them," or something like that.

Or with the intention of going out and trying to take pictures that might have a market. Never. I just go out and photograph and if something I see comes—that I can reach and I’m interested in—I will photograph. I don’t believe in intellectualizing and working in any particular method. Just photograph, period.

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A good photograph will prove to the viewer how little our eyes permit us to see. Most people, really, don’t see—see only what they have always seen and what they expect to see—where a photographer, if he’s good, will see everything.

And better if he sees things he doesn’t expect to see.
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