Leon Levinstein was born September 20, 1910 in Buckhannon, West Virginia. He attended high school at Baltimore City College (1923–27) and college at Maryland Institute of Arts, Baltimore (1927–28). Levinstein remained in Baltimore until he enlisted in the army in 1942, serving mostly in Panama, as a propeller repair mechanic with the Air Corps. Shortly after his discharge from the army, with the rank of a sergeant in October 1945, he moved to New York City to work as an art director in his cousin’s advertising agency. In 1947–48 he studied with John Ebstel and Sid Grossman at the Photo League, and then in 1948–51 with Stuart Davis and Alexey Brodovitch at the New School for Social Research. He studied with Grossman for another three years. In the 1950s and 60s, his work was published extensively in major magazines such as Popular Photography and U.S. Camera Annual, and won Popular Photography 1952's International Photography Contest. In 1956, Levinstein exhibited at Helen Gee's Limelight Gallery, the only solo show during his lifetime. Both Alexey Brodovitch, artistic director of Harper's Bazaar, and Edward Steichen, renowned photographer and curator at the Museum of Modern Art recognized Levinstein’s talent; Levinstein's photographs were included in nine group shows at the Museum of Modern Art. Levinstein rarely worked on assignment and never made photography books. He earned his living as a graphic designer, not as a professional photographer, and generally remained aloof from the art world (he received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1975). This lack of broader recognition did nothing to slow him down, and he continued to photograph throughout his life. He died in New York City in 1988.
Levinstein’s work has a graphic virtuosity, using raw gestures and monumental bodies, balancing compassion and cruelty painting with shadows and light, portraying gently and direct the inhabitants of the streets he roams. He would skulk through crowds, blend in, and observe things that others would miss. Photographing strangers at close range, Levinstein captured the back alleys of New York City framing the faces, flesh, poses, and movements of his fellow city dwellers: couples, kids, beggars, prostitutes, families, society ladies, and sunbathers. Levinstein is best known for his candid and unsentimental black-and-white figure studies made in New York City neighborhoods from Times Square and the Lower East Side to Coney Island and Harlem. The ICP Collection also includes a substantial body of work of street photographs made on trips to India, Haiti, Spain, and Portugal.