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New York's Hipsters, Hustlers, and Handball Players

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As part of MutualArt's look at exhibitions around the world, this week we head to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to take a close look at a photography exhibition that opened last month titled Hipsters, Hustlers, and Handball Players: Leon Levinstein's New York Photographs, 1950-1980 (runs through October 17). An unheralded master of street photography, Leon Levintein 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.

Curator Jeff Rosenheim: The challenge for anyone working on the street with a camera is to be able to control and to understand what their purpose and agenda is, but also to allow chance occurrences and something out of control to be, to incorporate that into their work.

The street is a place where things happen, and so this handball-players picture is just this sort of monumental body, this sort of gesture, this leap of the player out of the frame of the picture - it just is this dynamic thing. It does incorporate the game in a very, I think, compositional way... and just this idea that the frame doesn't have to contain the whole figure, and in fact... the picture works because it doesn't.

Handball is one of the quintessential street sports of the city... and this picture - we don't know exactly when it was made, the late '50s or early '60s - is really good in a sort of elemental way because if we understand how this picture works we can understand how some of the other pictures the artist made work. Let's look at how the artist uses that knowledge and that technique, and a willingness to incorporate chance events into the very soul of the picture.

Levinstein was very drawn to the different characters, the different sort of bohemian characters that developed through the' 50s, '60s and into the '70s, so here we are with these guys, with their mustaches and their long sideburns, and they're courting, if you will, a woman with a sort of backless shirt on, who we can't really see her face.

But it's the intensity of the stare of the figure facing us. The photographer here is listening in, in a certain sense the fourth figure in this picture. You really feel the gaze of the picture-maker. And we're therefore entitled, by this transitive theory, we replace the artist and we are now studying the scene.

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