Tuesday, August 9, 2016

More Than Fashion: The Photography of Nina Leen

1940s and 1950s fashion captured by Nina Leen

There are fashion photographers, and then there are photographers who photograph fashion, but also capture far more than just pretty clothes.  Nina Leen was one of the latter.

Leen was born in Russia, but nobody seems to know when because she refused to tell her age.  She lived in Europe and moved to the US in 1939. When she died in 1995, her obituary revealed little about her life.  She was the first female photographer to shoot for Life, where she produced over forty covers as well as many other spreads. She is remembered for a 1950 photograph she took of the abstract artists known as the Irascibles -- including Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollack and Barnett Newman.   She published 15 books on photography, including several about animals -- the animal kingdom was a passion of Leen's.  One of her first jobs was photographing animals in a zoo.  She was married for many years to fashion photographer Serge Balkin.

Leen was fascinated with American culture, and her versatility as a photographer lent itself to the many different subjects she shot.  When she pointed her Rolleiflex at scenes of life in the United States, the resulting images were as varied in style and tone as America itself.  These photographs reveal a relaxed and candid population.  It was like seeing Norman Rockwell scenes the way they really were, rather than dressed up in artifice or overt romanticism.  Some of her most famous photographs capture the quixotic, uninhibited nature of the mid-20th-century American teenager.  She also seemed to be drawn to eccentrics, spending time photographing behind the scenes circus life at Ringling Brothers in 1949.

Her fashion photos are some of my favorites.  It's as if Leen looked upon models in beautiful clothes not as vapid mannequins, but as wild creatures worth capturing in their habitat.  The images are exuberant, verging on surreal, and always framed with the discerning eye of an outsider.

Be sure to look at the video of Nina Leen's photography at the top of this post.  Below, watch Nina discuss photographing teenagers in a rare interview shortly before her death.

Nina Leen compilation video by Apassionata11
Nina Leen interview video by David Hoffman.

Want to leave a comment?  Head over to the Chic Contraire Community Forum to start a conversation!