In its heyday, LIFE magazine was a weekly window into the lives of Americans, sending photographers to capture images of news and lifestyle and bringing it all into living rooms across the country. And in the “Best Of” collections, LIFE presents us with its own edits of the most important moments of American life.
But in the age of Pinterest, we’re discovering quirkier aspects of photographic history, and the photographs of one photographer keep popping up: those of Nina Leen.
Born in Russia, Nina Leen lived in several countries in Europe and trained as a painter before moving to the United States. She taught herself how to take photographs, practicing with her Rolleiflex at the Bronx Zoo. When her image of fighting turtles was published in LIFE, she became one of the first female photographers to be sent regularly on assignment for them.
During her life she was best known for her photographs of animals (which she reputedly liked more than people), but her photos of fashion, life, and women’s lifestyle rituals are fraught with as much drama and suspense as any Alfred Hitchcock or David Lynch film. And even some of the “non-fashion” photos wouldn’t look out of place in a current editorial spread. Here are a few choice examples:
This is model Norma Richter, in a dress featuring multiple photos of herself, printed directly onto the fabric. In 1947 this technology was brand new, with two different methods invented by rival firms.
Before IVF made multiple births a common thing, triplets were rare, and the Dee triplets were featured in LIFE. Here they are after getting their hair cut so they looked a little different. Several years later Leen featured them in fashion photographs on the beach.
Witches’ covens in 1944? In St. Louis? Esoteric as it looks, this sorority rite is only a reenactment for Leen, who photographed it as part of a series on a new phenomenon – the American teenager.
You’ll be wanting to hem your skirts to the proper length. Or else.
This isn’t just politically incorrect, it’s what the Young Women’s Republican Club in Milford, CT did for fun in 1941. They organized a sendup of a men’s “smoker”- a night of tobacco, cards, striptease, and other mayhem. It was reported that they left more of a mess than the firemen’s convention.
More of the latest photo technology from 1947: one of Hedy Lamarr’s fans can now rest his weary head next to her.
Beauty lessons for a race of aliens – humans.
This is Margaret Severn, a dancer who used up to a dozen masks in her performances.
I don’t think we’ll ever know what happens to the girl who chooses the wrong shape to paint her lips.
Vertigo? Or The Birds? A missing still from a Hitchcock movie.
Here’s one of her pure fashion images – still surreal, though not as tense. It is about summer fashion, after all.
After her stint at LIFE, Nina Leen continued to make photographs and publish books, mostly of animals. And bats – she had a special affection for them. Which may have informed the strangeness of her portrayals of humans. But her photographs don’t just live on in Cyberspace, but in “Space” space as well – a photograph she took of four generations of an Ozark family was chosen to fly on the Voyager Spacecraft as a representation of humans to any aliens that might encounter it. And maybe that’s fitting – even as we’re trying to be normal, we humans are a pretty strange bunch. Maybe with a little prep from Nina Leen’s photos, any aliens that encounter us won’t be quite as shocked at what they find.
Nina Leen at LIFE.