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A Father’s Pictures

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The smell of fixer is one of my oldest memories of photography and my dad’s Nikon SP and the black Besseler enlarger would eventually become part of my own path into photography. Robert Levin was a writer at heart, and didn’t flatter himself with comparisons to the pros of the day, who happened also to be his professional associates and friends, but took some pleasure in his creations. As an editor, he assigned Henri Cartier-Bresson to photograph Dr. Anthony Pisicano, a local Long Beach pediatrician, and the Frenchman visited or house. Weegee passed by the house once, and Life’s Bill Ray photographed our family for a Life Magazine. Bob’s photography books were among my earliest photographic influences, although the truth is that I came to photography in my 20’s, and that his friendship with Howard Chapnick of Black Star, who also lived in Long Beach, was a major door-opener for me.

When my father passed away in the early 70’s I was given two large boxes by his secretary at Redbook Magazine, containing thousands ofj prints, negatives and personal papers from his childhood in the Bronx, where he attended Dewitt Clinton High School amd eventually the City University of New York and then Columbia. Like many of the upwardly mobile Jewish families living in the Bronx, the Levins had begun a slow migration to Long Island. For Alfred and Frances Levin and their two boys, Long Beach was the preferred summertime residence. Alfred was a jewelry salesman, first travelling in the South and than opening up his own business in the Jewelry Exchange on 47th Street. America was both affluent and expanding, and young adults were mobile and interested in things like Kodak Brownie cameras, which were extremely popular and easy to use, and made photography available to the growing American middle class. The first section of pictures taken in Long Beach, of Bob and his friends were made with one of them.

Robert served in the military during World War II as a writer for Stars and Stripes, the army’s newspaper. But he returned to Europe after the war with my mother, Martha, and spent a year, writing and photographing extensively, this time with a black Rollei twin lens reflex camera. These photographs are among most interesting, moody still-lifes and landscapes, often inspired, or so she jokingly insisted, by the direction of my mother, who had studied art history, and considered herself to have the finer eye of the two. In fact, she took full credit for his ability with the camera.

After returning to New York, Robert freelanced as a writer for men’s magazines like Pageant and Coronet, writing detective stories and doing interviews with celebrities like Elizabeth Taylor and Jacqueline Kennedy. The young couple lived in Long Beach in a rented apartment, and looked foward to a bright future in a country of expanding opportunity. I was born in New York City in 1950, and with my sister Peri followed two years later Before settling in and buying a house with a GI Loan, my parents decided to return to Europe, and the four of us we sailed off to France pn the Liberte. We lived in England, France, Spain and Italy, and my dad continued to freelance for the men’s magazines. typing off manuscripts and mailing them off to his editors in New York. By this time he had purchased a Nikon 35mm camera which had become the rage in photography and was aware of the work of Cartier-Bresson, as he was of the progressive writers like Jean-Paul Satre, and of course the American Henry Miller, and in our little family he had a opportunity to document what was a very idyllic and transformational time. He liked street photography, but some of the most compelling images are clearly of his own family. I don’t remember him posing any pictures, he was definitely a bit of a lurker. He rolled his own film, and developed much of it in a portable darkroom.

The family returned to Long Island so that I could begin school. We bought a Levitt house in Long Beach, and eventually Bob would take an editorial position in Manhattan at Redbook Magazine and commuted by train or car from Long Beach. The photographs from this time period are less candid and more representative of special events, a school play or graduation, or a family gathering. Eventually he was able to purchase a larger home in nearby Lido Beach very close to the water and it is here that the photographs tapered off. A divorce, a new life in Manhattan, made photography more of an afterthought, and less of a passion. There was less time, and certainly much less time for the family on Long Island.
What has become clear to me, is that the camera and the photographs of the family represented a vision of what family life was supposed to be, rather than the reality of what it was, or what perhaps what my father was.

My own career as a photography, if you could call it a career, has roots in the work of my father’s pictures. My comfort about the camera, came directly as a result of its presence as an indicator of love. I started with the Nikon SP that was used for all of his European work, although by this time the SLR had become the magazine photographer’s workhorse, and I quickly gravitated to the newer cameras, for better or worse, and the eventual assignments that took me all over the world and allowed me more success than I ever thought possible as a professional photographer.

But looking back at my father’s pictures, what impresses me most is that some of the most meaningful images that we can take are of things that are of our families, our friends, our communities, and the moments of our lives that are worth preserving. All photographs are proof that something happened and a way to mark our time as we live our days, one at a time. The increased volume of images, from cell-phone cameras, digital SLRS and the like as easy to use as they are, doesn’t really change the reason for using a camera. And I can only wonder what the children of today will see forty years from now when looking back
at the images taken by their parents. Will they be nostalgic for the 2010s? Probably so,