New York City in the mid 20th century was densely overpopulated and continuing to grow. The children of immigrants began to move from their parents’ mono-ethnic neighborhoods to more diverse areas. To document this cultural revolution, a group of young idealistic photographers formed the New York Photo League. The Photo League aimed to chronicle life as from the streets of New York City. It facilitated classes, equipment, and darkrooms for students to develop their photographs. At the front lines capturing these scenes were Morris Engel and Leon Levinstein. Engel and Levinstein sought out snapshots of normal daily life. Many of their photos were spontaneous and not staged, exhibiting the elements of human life usually ignored by the common passerby. Through their strange composition and choice of candid, honest subjects, Engel and Levinstein suggest a vision of the world in which only an experienced observer can catch the hidden intricacies of human nature.
Morris Engel was born in 1918 in Brooklyn, New York to Jewish parents. In 1936, he joined the New York Photo League where he worked with photographers Aaron Siskind, Berenice Abbott and Paul Strand. Engel became a staff photographer on the newspaper “PM” before joining the Navy in 1941. Just like Robert Capa, he landed on Normandy on D-Day, and received a citation from Captain Edward Steichen. After his return, Engel worked for many other magazines such as Ladies Home Journal, McCall’s, Fortune, and Colliers. Engel’s photo Shoeshine Boy at Work is iconic in its ability to grant the viewer a unique perspective, shifting the photo’s subconscious associations. Being taken from the boy’s eye level, this photo emotionally connects the viewer with the boy as they share a common sightline. The viewer sees the world as the boy does – from the cement sidewalk of the city street. Only the leg and shoe of the customer are visible, the only attributes the boy would focus on while shining his shoes. This unique perspective is reminiscent of the iconic Peanuts comic strip. From the eyes of the Charlie Brown and the other children, adults appear as legs that extend boundlessly to the top of the frame of view. In Shoeshine Boy at Work, the boy looks too young to be working on the streets of the city. However one can infer that he is not new to his work as he sees each of the customers as merely another pair of shoes to shine, separate from the person to whom they belong. Through Engel’s radical perspective, he demonstrates that the world of the shoeshine boy is radically different than the world of the man whose shoes are being shined.
While not nearly as popular, Leon Levinstein is an equally as fascinating photographer. Dubbed “The Lonely Photographer,” Levinstein is often the most unknown New York Photo League photographer. Born to Jewish parents, he attended the Maryland Institute of Arts before enlisting in the army as a mechanic. Shorty after his discharge, Levinstein moved to New York City where he joined the Photo League. He was terribly afraid of the limelight and hated company. In a 1988 interview, Leon states that photographing with a partner pulls him from his work, “so you got to be alone and work alone. It’s a very lonely occupation.” Levinstein famously refused to show up to exhibitions of his work at the Howard Greenberg Gallery and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, despising the attention his photos brought him.
Listen to the 1988 Interview Below
Levinstein had few friends and often roamed the streets alone, clad in tattered clothes. His solitude however granted him a unique perspective. Levinstein could slide through crowds unnoticed, and holding his camera sideways, captured raw, candid shots of the human condition. Much of his work is spontaneous and honest – chronicling the intricacies of human nature and documenting society behind the closed curtain.
Levinstein’s photo Two Men Fighting in a Crowd is iconic in its strange depiction of human solidarity. The men brawling in the center seem to morph into one single body; complete with one visible face, two arms and two legs. They are the only visible bodies in the photo, a circle of feet encompasses the top. The circular position of their interlocking bodies seems to create a yin and a yang – two opposing forces that find a balance to exist harmoniously. This is especially relevant in the context of the racially turbulent 1970s. The photo is suggesting that although the men – one Caucasian and the other African American – are opposing one another, they can eventually find harmony.
Levinstein’s photo follows the traditional principles of the Photo League – it identifies and exposes an instance of social unrest. Levinstein captures only what is absolutely necessary to understand the photograph. The framing of this photo directs the viewers attention to the focal point of the piece, allowing the viewer to explore in greater depth the hidden intricacies of the photo. According to Levinstein, “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.” Two Men Fighting in a Crowd is iconic in its ability to offer the viewer a revolutionary perspective into social conflict. The men are primitive, barbaric, honest: they are wrestling on the ground without weapons, fists, or strikes; one man’s brute strength against another’s. As a lonely, quiet photographer, Levinstein is able to capture this candid shot of honest human interaction, a true feat of documentary photography.
Both Engel and Levinstein utilize a unique perspective to show what the eye commonly misses. As observers of the street scene, they had seen the extraordinary, those intrinsically fascinating details that the common passerby ignores. Their use of bizarre framing and unanticipated perspective highlights the scenes they wish to make prominent. As Jewish children in the second quarter of the 20th century, they lived in diverse urban neighborhoods and thus gained a keen fascination with the often-ignored intricacies of human nature. This fixation is evident through their photographs: their choice of peculiar subject and composition expose the eye of an experienced observer.