These photos show an idealized vision of midcentury America… with a subtle hint of weirdness
Nina Leen’s work was some of the best — and least remembered — of all Life’s celebrated photographers
Not much is known about Nina Leen, the Russian-born Life photographer who moved to New York in 1939 and proceeded to spend the next four decades making some of the best — and least remembered — images the magazine ever printed. Leen was one of Life’s first female photographers when she was hired in 1945, and from the beginning her work was magazine clean — direct, well lit, and meticulous. Leen’s democratic eye conveyed an impressively diverse cast of subjects over her career, from fashion and youth culture to architecture, celebrity portraiture, and, in the end, a voluminous run of animal books with titles like Dogs of All Sizes and The World of Bats. She shot the infamous group portrait of Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Hedda Sterne, and the rest of the Irascible 18 — a group of rebel Abstract Expressionists who boycotted the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s American Painting Today competition in 1950. In June 1953, her photo essay “Consider the Lowly Penny” explicated in granular detail the indispensable role of currency’s lowest denominator. Overall, Leen’s focus was on American domesticity. She didn’t chase news stories or produce immersive social documentary, like her co-worker Gene Smith, yet her images speak volumes about the aspirations and priorities of the postwar mainstream (white) culture. It also centers women as empowered protagonists, emphasizing the distinct traits and desires of American teens, mothers, and busy professionals navigating the optimism and possibilities of a booming economy. Like much of Life, Leen’s pictures set the mold for an idealized vision of midcentury America. Houses, homemakers, beauty, and appliances. The promise of a better life through convenience.
Still, there was an oddness about her eye. Perhaps owing to her status as an outsider, Leen’s pictures often reveal more complex undercurrents than a popular magazine like Life would have been able to convey. Like her disconcerting series on the Young Women’s Republican Club of Milford, Connecticut, or the story she shot in January 1948 about indoor sunbathers in Atlantic City. Leen’s work can be interpreted in multiple ways, but implicit throughout is a critique of consumerism and privilege. Her portraits of art school college students are a wry commentary on ambition and creativity in a culture of conformity.
When Nina Leen passed away in early 1995, her New York Times obituary noted that the photographer was “secretive about her age” but was “believed to be in her late 70’s or early 80's” at the time of death. A mention of her Abstract Expressionist shoot, having overcome a fear of animals in order to photograph them, and her marriage to fashion photographer Serge Balkin, rounded out the obit, succinctly titled “Nina Leen Is Dead; A Photographer.”