The American lifestyle of the 1950s has something timeless and stylish, and Nina Leen was a photographer who captured it the best. Mysterious Nina Leen was one of the second female LIFE photographers after the famous Margaret Bourke-White. The unobtrusive and calm mood of her photos made them less memorable than shocking pictures of her colleagues, like Country Doctor, Migrant mother, or the American way.
The mystery of Nina Leen
The facts about Nina are few: she hid her age and the date of the birth. It is supposed that she was born somewhere between 1909 and 1914. Nina was born in the Russian Empire, probably in a wealthy family, and due to revolutions and war, they moved to Europe. It is known that she studied painting in Berlin, lived in Italy and Switzerland, where she started to portray famous people of that time.
In 1939 Nina Leen moved to New York. Animals were her obsession: Nina created and published several books devoted to the life of different species: The World of Bats, Snakes, Cats, and others. Even her first project for LIFE was photos of tortoises at the Bronx Zoo, published in April 1940.
In 1945 LIFE officially hired her as a photographer. Her meticulous approach and sense of composition resulted in a series of beautiful photos in different genres. No matter what captured her camera – youth on the street, model on the stage or Batcave – all photos were warmly met by the audience.
Capturing the American Lifestyle
Next decade she depicted the idealized everyday life of postwar America. Mainstream direction, mostly female characters, and domestic photos are considered as creative documentaries of the 1940s and 1950s youth culture – everything that you call an American lifestyle. For example, the Young Women’s Republican Club of Milford, Connecticut, random sunbathers in Atlantic City photo series. All models on her photos of that period are relaxed and enjoy some quality time. It is uncertain what sense she put in her photos, so there are a lot of interpretations, from idealizing American Dream, to criticism of the consumer lifestyle of ordinary people.
Another direction she was good at is fashion photography. Nina probably was the most professional fashion photographer LIFE ever had. Her covering of Paris shows in the 1940s are still iconic.
Except for fancy and joyful works, Nina created several social projects. One of her famous photos depicts Irascible 18 – a group of artists (Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Hedda Sterne, and others) who started the fight with the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s American Painting Today competition over the exclusion of abstract expressionism from a New York show, 1950.
In her photo “Consider the Lowly Penny”, published in 1953, Nina thoughtfully showed the value of the smallest coin.
She never chased top news or exceptional stories: most of her sets are focused on daily optimism, protagonistic roles of females, the life of teens, the role of professional workers for the economy.