Nina Leen

Nina Leen

1909 - 1995


Nina Leen was born in Russia. Her exact date of birth has not been officially confirmed as she was keeping it a secret, but it is estimated to be around 1909. She grew up with unusual pets, such as monkeys and snakes and traveled to Europe from an early age. Her nomadic lifestyle played an important role in shaping her personality and offered her a variety of visual stimuli. She studied painting in Germany and also lived in Italy and Switzerland. In 1939, she moved to the United States, where she bought her first camera, a Rolleiflex, with which she explored her personal expressive style, emphasizing on photo sharpness, lighting and the meticulous detailing of images. Her first portraits depicted animals from the Bronx Zoo in New York. In 1940, she sent a series of turtle photos to LIFE magazine, which were published in the April issue. That was when Leen's long-standing collaboration with the magazine began, which would last until 1972. During this period, she produced over 50 covers and a variety of themed photo series from around the world. In the 1940s, she successfully covered Paris fashion shows, photographed models and married fashion photographer Serge Balkin. At the same time, she produced portraits of famous celebrities, such as actors and royal families members, as well as architectural photography, and was constantly photographing animals such as her dog Lucky, the squirrel Tommy Tucker, and bats, a series of photos she published in the book The World of Bats (1970) written by biologist Alvin Novick. She was also particularly interested in capturing the psychology, aesthetics and expectations associated with post-war American culture of the 1940s and 1950s, and presented photos of American teenagers, women and professionals as well as group portraits of people as symbols of the vision, the attitude and the capabilities of an emerging economy. However, her gaze deviated from the conventional directions given by LIFE magazine when covering household, beauty and consumerism issues, and dared to delve deeper into revealing more complex aspects of American daily and social life through her work. This became evident in the photo series The Young Women's Republican Club of Milford, Connecticut, 1941, and Consider the Lowly Penny, 1953. It is no coincidence that she captured the historical photo of the group of artists known as The Irascibles. The Irascibles or Irascible 18 was a group of American abstract artists who signed an open letter of protest addressed to Roland L. Redmond, then President of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, in 1950. The letter was written as a protest against the museum's policy of evaluating artworks on the occasion of the exhibition American Painting Today (1950) and the accompanying national competition for its organization. LIFE Magazine decided to cover the story in the January 15, 1951 issue by including a portrait of the signatories to which the designation Irascibles was facetiously attributed. Nina Leen undertook their photo shoot in November 1950 in a studio on 44th Street, where she took a total of twelve photos, one of which was published in the magazine. The featured artists were Theodoros Stamos, Jimmy Ernst, Barnett Newman, James Brooks, Mark Rothko, Richard Pousette-Dart, William Baziotes, Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still, Robert Motherwell, Bradley Walker Tomlin, Willem de Kooning, Adolph Gottlieb, Ad Reinhardt and Hedda Sterne, while Weldon Kees, Hans Hofmann and Fritz Bultman were not present. The release of the photo provided the artists with immediate publicity and recognition and helped them become established as the first generation of American abstract expressionists. Another group portrait that holds a special place in Nina Leen's portfolio was also created around 1950 and depicts four generations of a family of farmers from Ozark. This particular portrait was selected by Carl Sagan and is among the 116 images representing mankind on the Voyager spacecraft. After completing her collaboration with LIFE Magazine, Nina Leen focused on publishing photography books, holding 15 publications by the end of her life. She died on January 1, 1995 in her house in New York. She participated in the exhibitions The Photo Essay (1965), The Family of Man (1955) and Memorable Life Photographs (1951) at the MoMA in New York. In 2015, the Daniel Cooney Fine Art Gallery in New York held the exhibition Nina Leen: Lenslady in her honor.