Nina Leen was born in Russia, although no one is sure about the year, as she always kept her actual age a secret. She studied art in Germany, and lived in France, Switzerland and Italy before emigrating to the United States.Amazingly, she stepped on the shores of America in 1939, and was shooting for LIFE magazine by 1940. Nina Leen always used a Rolleiflex TLR Automat camera. What is puzzling about her career was she never became an actual staff photographer for LIFE, but did hundreds of images for them, including over 50 covers! Uhh,…can you say “sexist”? Dismissing women in the 40’s was probably a social norm.
Nina Leen – Unknown Icon
Nina Leen was a very prolific fashion photographer for LIFE, and was also married to the fashion photographer Serge Balkin. She was finally recognized by Edward Steichen when she was included in his ‘The Family of Man’ exhibitions. That recognition was probably well appreciated by someone who in fact was not only producing massive amounts of work, but even books.
Everything from animal stories to royalty to actresses to the youth culture. Her fashion was a lot of unposed location work, that was quite forward thinking at the time. (most fashion photographers were wedded to the studio in the 40’s) However, one thing is known; she was LIFE’s first female photographer ever.
While they tended to give her all the very pedestrian assignments, she always amazed the editors with her imaging prowess. Her absolute determination to photograph everything led to even taking images of unknown artists at the time. Including Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko. I guess the last laugh was on the assignment editor.
Tension and Art
When viewing her images today, the violence, sexual tension, and mystery of her real world images are obvious. In fact, many of her images could be at home alongside work by such photo icons as Cindy Sherman or Nan Goldin. She died in 1995 having produced 15 books and prints, 1000’s of images, and lots of covers. Why she is not more known remains the true mystery. While we don’t know her actual age when she died, we know she was in her 80’s. Hey,…a lady needs to keep some secrets.