American Portraits 1979-1989Leon Borensztein

(Nazraeli Press, 2011 )

Leon Borensztein was a travelling portrait photographer from 1979-1989, a decade that saw the cultural decline of professionally photographed family portraits– the act relegated from a celebrated social ceremony to an antiquated and historic domestic performance.

His car laden with the equipment of his craft and his diary bursting with endless appointments, Borensztein produced contrived color family portraits– fabricated and aspirational documents of domesticity. Predominantly commissioned in working-class districts of America’s West, Borensztein was the transient chronicler of the voiceless and invisible. His portraits reveal a community theatrically presenting themselves at their best, but behind the spectacle, Borensztein reveals those living on the outskirts of the American dream.

The monochromatic photographs in American Portraits were surreptitiously produced whilst Borensztein was on assignment. These alternative images (to what he was commissioned to produce) are at times compositionally awkward and often reveal the sitters’ personal artifacts that subtly intrude on Borensztein’s naïve studio setup. Although as viewers we are unable to compare the two sets of images, Borensztein was in no doubt of the distinction – “My black and white images reflect the alienation so typical of today’s America. The same subjects in the customers’ version show an apparent feeling of togetherness and satisfaction.”

Leon Borensztein was the outsider allowed in, and with that invitation, he created a bleakly intimate and vivid archive of America’s Reagan years. Borensztein had the ability to make “the masks” on his subjects’ faces vanish, and what he subsequently reveals is a powerful connection between the photographer and his subject, and the vulnerability, anxiety and loneliness of his America.

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