The Thoughtful Portraits of Russian Photographer Nina Leen

Discover the work and life of this enigmatic photographer

By Google Arts & Culture

Words by Rebecca Fulleylove

By Nina LeenLIFE Photo Collection

Photographer Nina Leen kept the date of her birth unknown, adamantly refusing to reveal or even discuss her age. This air of mystery was ongoing, and she lived a fairly nomadic existence, with travel playing a key part in her life. Born in Russia, the photographer grew up in various parts of Europe such as Italy and Switzerland, and she studied painting in Berlin before emigrating to the United States in 1939.

With her first camera, a Rolleiflex, she honed her photography skills and soon caught the attention of LIFE magazine. In April 1940, the magazine published Leen’s first photographs, which were of tortoises at the Bronx Zoo.

Female tortoise by Nina Leen (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

By Nina LeenLIFE Photo Collection

Two tortoises fighting by Nina Leen (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

Leen is often described as “one of the first women staff photographers at LIFE", but she was never officially on the staff of the magazine. Rather, after her first images were published, she became a contract photographer for them up until the magazine ceased publishing as a weekly in 1972.

Over the years Leen was behind over 50 magazine covers and contributed to numerous reports from around the world. One of the most famous stories regarding her career at LIFE, is the tale of her dog Lucky, which began in 1949.

By Nina LeenLIFE Photo Collection

Lucky by Nina Leen (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

Lucky (1960-11) by Nina LeenLIFE Photo Collection

Lucky by Nina Leen (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

Leen adopted Lucky (above) after her colleague Leonard McCombe found him as a downtrodden, abandoned puppy in Texas. McCome brought him back to the LIFE offices in New York unable to leave the puppy there. Leen was a well-known animal lover, often preferring them to humans, and she quickly adopted the pup.

Nina subsequently brought Lucky with her everywhere, documenting the dog’s post-rescue adventures in follow-up articles, a book, and even a short film as the public were just as invested in him as Leen.

Many of her portraits had animal subjects at the forefront or she often photographed human subjects with various furry creatures. Leen wasn’t limited to photographing animals though and had a knack for capturing angst-riddled teenagers during the 40s and 50s, and was a prolific fashion photographer for LIFE, traveling to Paris numerous times.

Teenagers-'Lucky Generation' (1953) by Nina LeenLIFE Photo Collection

From the series Teenagers: Lucky Generation by Nina Leen (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

Teenagers-'Lucky Generation' (1953) by Nina LeenLIFE Photo Collection

From the series Teenagers: Lucky Generation by Nina Leen (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

Beatrice Lodge (1956-06) by Nina LeenLIFE Photo Collection

Beatrice Lodge being fitted for an Oscar De La Renta dress by Nina Leen (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

Group portraits were also something Leen excelled in and her two most famous group shots are still prominent today. The first featured four generations of an Ozark farming family, and the other is a now-legendary shot of “The Irascibles”, which pictured artists including Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko. These artists had come together to protest the Metropolitan Museum’s refusal to include Abstract Expressionist works in a major 1950 retrospective of American painting.

By Nina LeenLIFE Photo Collection

Four generations of farmers in an Ozark family by Nina Leen (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

By Nina LeenLIFE Photo Collection

The Irascibles by Nina Leen (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

Despite work from LIFE stopping in 1972, throughout the rest of the 70s Leen continued to flourish. She produced an average of two books a year and published 15 in her lifetime, including one about bats, who she nicknamed “flying kittens”.

Bats (1968) by Nina LeenLIFE Photo Collection

Bats by Nina Leen (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

Bats (1968) by Nina LeenLIFE Photo Collection

Bats by Nina Leen (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

Leen’s success stemmed from her passion for every assignment she worked on and her ability to find the real story and present the human (or animal) side. What set the photographer apart was also her skill of transforming a relatively pedestrian scene in a way that made it look like a scene from a film – full of intrigue and energy.

Leen died on January 1, 1995 at her home in New York City. A spokesperson for LIFE said that she was in her late 70s or early 80s, but we’ll never know for sure.

Check out more of Leen's photographs below or see the full collection here.

New Kennedy Baby (1958-03) by Nina LeenLIFE Photo Collection

John and Jackie Kennedy with their new baby Caroline by Nina Leen (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

Jackie Robinson (1949-07-07) by Nina LeenLIFE Photo Collection

Brooklyn Dodger baseball star Jackie Robinson with his family by Nina Leen (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

Belt Fashions (1958-04) by Nina LeenLIFE Photo Collection

Belt Fashions by Nina Leen (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

Teenagers-'Lucky Generation' (1953) by Nina LeenLIFE Photo Collection

From the series Teenagers: Lucky Generation by Nina Leen (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

Teenagers-'Lucky Generation' (1953) by Nina LeenLIFE Photo Collection

From the series Teenagers: Lucky Generation by Nina Leen (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

495-Girl With Letters by Nina LeenLIFE Photo Collection

Girl with Letters by Nina Leen (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

June Wedding Kansas City (1947) by Nina LeenLIFE Photo Collection

June Wedding in Kansas City by Nina Leen (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

82-Dog Painter by Nina LeenLIFE Photo Collection

Dog Painter by Nina Leen (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

By Nina LeenLIFE Photo Collection

Denise Darcel, Peggy Ann Garner, Ann Sothern and Faye Emerson sporting poodle cuts by Nina Leen (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

Mrs. Jaques Fath (1948-03) by Nina LeenLIFE Photo Collection

Mrs Jaques Fath by Nina Leen (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

Peregreni Falcons (1972-06-01) by Nina LeenLIFE Photo Collection

Peregreni Falcons by Nina Leen (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

Nickle (1971-04) by Nina LeenLIFE Photo Collection

Nickle by Nina Leen (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

California Living (1945-10) by Nina LeenLIFE Photo Collection

California Living by Nina Leen (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

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