Image Above: ©Leon Borenszrein (Fantaci World Pageant Prince Beauty Winner and Master Photogenic, Beaumont, Texas, 1981)

Foley Gallery presented American Portraits 1979-1989 by photographer Leon Borensztein on June 17th, 2015

Borensztein first immigrated to the United States from Israel in the late 1970s and initially worked as a traveling portrait photographer throughout the environs of San Francisco. Commercial portrait sessions would be set-up by eager salesmen, sending Borensztein across California, making up to 30 portraits a day of people in their homes. While photographing put-on smiles in color for his employer, he decided to make his own photographs in black & white, pulling far enough away from the backdrop to reveal the interior room, the domestic life of his sitter(s). With clear directions not to smile, “the masks on their faces vanished.” Eventually, he traveled across the country, meeting his customers in public spaces, economically covering more subjects at a time.

12612_45.tif©Leon Borenszrein (Left: Twin Sisters in Aviator Hats, Oakland, California, 1988; Right:Veterans of Royal Canadian ForcesPetaluma, California, 1985)


During his travels, it became clear to him that the “American Dream” he longed for himself was also a dream that he shared with his subjects. But, like his own life, the realities of these mostly working class families wore away at the possibility. A loneliness and isolation emanated from his subjects. As in the portraits of Arkansas’s Mike Disfamer and Germany’s August Sander before, Borensztein’s photographs reveal what his subjects really look like and not necessarily what they want to be.

12612_59.tif©Leon Borenszrein (Left: Black Mother with Baby GirlSan Pablo California, 1979; Right: Parents with Five Children, Bakersfield, California, 1983)


Although his subjects didn’t know one another, they seem like they are a part of the same community, trying to present themselves in the “right” way. They are on the same social level, having the same concerns, ambitions and sharing similar living conditions as one another. Borensztein’s use of a simple and consistent backdrop equalizes their status. But, by revealing their immediate surroundings, the opportunity to be seen as something other than they are vanishes. When the backdrop gets put a way and the photographer pulls into his next town, their lives go back to normal. By subtly shifting how much is portrayed, Borensztein reinterprets the construction of the American identity.