Russian-born Nina Leen was one of the first female photographers to shoot for LIFE magazine, which, fortunately for us, means there’s a ton of her work available on the Google LIFE photo archives. While mostly known for her work with animals (including a dog named Lucky that she adopted and apparently put hats on), it’s Leen’s photographs of women that I find most fascinating. Admittedly, to some extent the period of time in which she was working for LIFE — the late 40s through the 1950s — dictated that bizarre style of “it’s totally not posed, I swear, I just stand this awkwardly and grin with a box of kitchen supplies all the time, not to mention we are all white and very happy all the time” photography. (The original “woman laughing alone with salad?”)
But when juxtaposed with her more candid shots (a girl falling down at a skating rink, a woman on the phone in an office, women trying on shoes, cleaning their living rooms, browsing stores) they provide a surprising amount of insight into the expectations versus reality of being a young woman in that era. Exposé photoessays on the work of housewives or of young working girls (like we know from Mad Men, most of them are either secretaries or models) ran in contrast to Upper East Side socialites walking their dogs or glamorous women in evening gowns posed like mannequins. Intentionally or otherwise, her work as a whole provides an interesting study on idealized femininity and the public versus private lives of women and the world, separate from that of men, in which they were forced to exist.
More photos after the jump.
Oddly, the thing I noticed most with these two beyond the fact that she’s obviously, like many photographers, staged the same shot more than once with better lighting/a better model/whatever, was the familiarity of that good old New York “galley kitchen.”