Mannequin dressed in suit and overcoat illustrating shortages during WWII, 1942. © Time Inc.
Members of the Young Women’s Republican Club of Milford, CT
explore “masculine” enjoyments, here they play poker and smoke, 1941. © Time Inc.
Man holding large cube of ice to illustrate shortages during WWII, 1942. © Time Inc.
Tommy Tucker drying off after a bath, 1944. © Time Inc.
William F. Schlemmer of Hammacher Schlemmer with his Yorkies, NYC. 1944. © Time Inc.
One of the first female contract photographers at LIFE magazine, Nina Leen shaped our vision of contemporary American life in a way that was casually surreal, with an elegant touch. She was named “Lenslady” by the Los Angeles Times in an article that appeared at the start of her career in 1944, and worked until the magazine ceased weekly publication in 1972.
Born in Russia and raised across Europe before immigrating to the United States in 1939 at the outbreak of World War II, Leen remained secretive about her age throughout her life. It is believed that she was approximately 80 years old when she died in 1995 at her home in New York City. Her obituary in The New York Times notes she had published 15 books in her life, including two studies of bats in the 1970s.
Leen revealed a few words about her early years to John Loengard for the book LIFE Photographers: What They Saw (published in 1998, eight years after her death), “I grew up in Germany, in Switzerland, in Italy—in a boarding school much of the time. I could not have animals there, but when I wasn’t in school, I had them. I had a monkey for a long time. The monkey’s picture is still in my bedroom. I had snakes. I had all kinds of animals. When I started working, I was a zoo photographer, and I thought this was heaven.”
She brought this love of her subject to her professional work. Her effortless grace is evident in all her work, and it is because of this grace that she was a natural to photograph animals, teenagers, and American style for the magazine. Leen described herself to John as “A journalist—a photojournalist. That means you know when you’ve found a story and how to put the story into pictures. If I were only a photographer, I would have a selection of single pictures, and they would be good pictures but not a story. Of course, to tell a story in pictures, the story should have something in it that is worth telling—to milk a cow without milk makes no sense.”
Indeed, this truth extends into other realms as well perhaps none so fittingly as the curation of a gallery show. Fittingly Daniel Cooney had the foresight to see this, and presents Nina Leen “Lenslady” the photographer’s first solo exhibition, opening March 26 at Daniel Cooney Fine Art, New York, and running through May 16, 2015.
Cooney first came across the work of Nina Leen while preparing for an online auction. It was a single photograph that, over the course of a couple of months, made Cooney curious. He recalls, “I realized I didn’t know who this woman was. I found her work interesting. She took boring and mundane assignments with animals and teens, and she made the most of it. My curiosity was piqued.
“On the surface, her photographs don’t have anything to do with each other, but she has a clear vision. She hadn’t had any shows. I was interested to find out who might have known the work. I went to Time to look at the archive. I told them I wanted to look at everything. This was only the work she did while at LIFE, but I suspect that there is more of her work out in the world, like someone has a stash. This is not her personal work. I don’t know if she did any.”
Nina Leen “Lenslady” features vintage photographs from the archive at LIFE Magazine. Cooney recalls, “Everyone was so easy to work with. I sat in a conference room with boxes of manila folders, organized according to subject, looking through Nina Leen’s press prints. They’re not signed. Instead the are all stamped and captioned on the back. These are the exact pictures the reproduction were made from, and as far as I know, they are the only prints that exist.
“There was so much to look at in her archive. She did a lot of different assignments, and I put aside the best pictures. I tried not to worry about the genre. I selected photographs that had a connection to each other. There was a feeling of the surreal. In Nina Leen photographs, there are always body parts floating around and hands coming out of nowhere. I was responding to a certain style she used that seemed very distinctive to me.
“All I know is, no one knows anything about her. She did 44 covers at LIFE. She was very successful. She was a working photographer. It was a day job. She was a Russian Jew who had to leave Europe because of the war, and she made a home for herself in the 1940s. That wasn’t a friendly time for women.” But Nina Leen was both stylish and successful, and her work at LIFE attests to this.
Cooney observes, “Leen’s chicness shines in her sophisticated visual vocabulary. She made images that are at once peculiar, intriguing and beautiful. Her subject matter was often mundane but her approach suggests a deep level of understanding. And, her attention to style runs constant throughout her images.
“Not a lot of people know Nina Leen. I’m telling her story without her permission, without her guidance, and that is a big responsibility. This is my take on it. It is an introduction.” An introduction that Cooney hopes will bring about the discovery of a broader swath of her work. “There’s more out there,” he believes. And it is this faith that guides us forward, as we discover the dynamism of Nina Leen’s photographs, a delightfully electric eccentricity that reveals itself softly in every frame.
Metropolitan Opera’s Heldontenor Lauritz Melchoir
with his wife and their Great Dane, NYC. 1944. © Time Inc.
Teenagers at formal dance, 1953. © Time Inc.
Metropolitan Opera singer Thalia Sabaneeva with her dog “Pooch”
wearing a Persian lamb fur coat, NYC. 1944. © Time Inc.
Young business man, New York City, 1946. © Time Inc.