Leon Levinstein was born in Buckhannon in West Virginia in 1910. His parents, Simon and Ida Levinstein, originally from Lithuania, were the owners of Levinstein's Department Store. Leon was the second eldest of four children and although he had a number of friends and enjoyed sports, he remained shy and anti-social. During high school and after graduation in 1927, he attended evening classes in drawing at the Maryland Institute of Art in Baltimore. He then attended the Art Institute of Pittsburgh to study graphic design. In 1933, he again enrolled in evening drawing classes at the Maryland Institute of Art while also working as an assistant art director doing layouts for newspaper advertisements. In 1937, he was self employed as a freelance graphic designer and in 1942 he enlisted in the army, primarily stationed in Panama serving as a mechanic with the Air Corps.
After being discharged in 1945, Levinstein moved to New York where he co-founded an advertising agency, Colby Advertising, with his cousin Theodore Schuchat and close friend Bernard Kramer. Working as the art director for the agency, Levinstein was in charge of all the design and layouts. In 1947 he studied as a part-time evening student at the New School taking classes in painting and design with Stuart Davis. He also studied photography under the watchful eye of Alexey Brodovitch. Brodovitch was a major influence on Levinstein and can certainly be referred to as his mentor at the time. In The Moment of Exposure Bob Shamis states: "studying with Brodovitch certainly provided a strong impetus to Levinstein's development as a photographer, and if we look at the graphic and emotionally expressive photographs he produced over the next thirty-five years, the influence of the Brodovitch philosophy is evident."
In 1948, Levinstein took a class with Sid Grossman at the Photo League School in New York. Grossman encouraged personal expression in photography and was undoubtedly one of the most influential figures in Levinstein's development as a photographer. Throughout the coming years, Levinstein took part in several group exhibitions and had a solo exhibition as the Limelight Gallery in 1956. He left Colby Advertising in 1953 to work as a self-employed photographer and freelance graphic designer. He did not return to a full time position until 1968 when he took a position as an art director with Brown & Gravenson, a catalogue merchandising firm based in New York.
Levinstein never married. His discomfort in social situations and his tendency to avoid emotional attachments fed into his work: "you have got to be alone and work alone, and it's a lonely occupation, if you want to call it that." (Levinstein, 1988).
During the late 70s and 80s, Levinstein travelled almost constantly to places such as North Africa, India and Europe. An aging man, he became bitter and resentful of his lack of appreciation after almost forty years dedication to photography. On his death bed, he told a friend not to let his son become a photographer. Leon Levinstein died of a stroke in December 1988.
- Helpful links:
The New School, New York: http://www.newschool.edu/
Alexey Brodovitch: http://www.iconofgraphics.com/Alexey-Brodovitch/
New York Photo League: http://www.martinelkort.com/photoleague.html