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Photographer Captures Moments Of a Forgotten New York

Whenever Arthur Leipzig snapped a photo during the 1940s and '50s, he always looked for the human face of New York. From subway riders to kids swimming in the East River, he was, in his words, ''a witness to a time that no longer exists, an innocent time.''

Some 70 stills of that time are currently on view at the Museum of the City of New York through March 30. The silver gelatin prints here offer delight in the simplest sense.

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Travel back to 1950 and see the sights of Coney Island: exhilarated roller-coaster riders, people crawling in an amusement park's ''turning barrel,'' a man intently reading a newspaper in front of Nathan's glaring sign - ''All Beef Frankfurters 20.''

Further back in time, we see the Brooklyn Bridge and the nimble-footed workers who dared to work high up in its cables (not to mention the fact that Leipzig was up there too). Equally as thrilling is the single photo ''Window Washer, Empire State Building, 1948.'' It makes you do what everyone tells you not to do: Look down.

Most of Leipzig's fancy, however, was not working from heights. ''My life as a photographer began in the streets of the city. For me, New York with its diverse cultures and varied topography was an exciting place 24 hours a day. Each day was a new challenge. It was in New York that I honed my skills and began to learn about the world and about myself,'' Leipzig explains in the exhibit.

Leipzig was a member of the Photo League, founded in 1936, which attracted artists who embraced photography both as an art form and a tool for social documentation. His photos appeared in PM magazine, The New York Times Magazine, This Week, and Fortune. Today they are featured in the Museum of Modern Art, the International Center of Photography (both in New York), and The National Gallery of Art, Ottawa. In addition to his freelance work, Leipzig taught photography at the C.W. Post campus of Long Island University for almost 30 years. His most recent project focuses on Jewish peoples around the world.

This exhibit offers viewers a two-pronged experience: the obvious being a nostalgic trip back in time, and the more scholarly being historic documentation. Leipzig's career parallels an energetic era of photojournalism. Just as ''Opening Night at the Opera, 1946'' and ''Subway Lovers, 1949'' serve as social history, ''Roosevelt Dies, 1945'' and ''V.E. Day, Times Square, 1945'' document highly charged political events.

History aside, perhaps the most effective photos are Leipzig's portraits of children. His street-games series has long been celebrated; ''King of the Hill'' (1943) was included in Edward Steichen's ''Family of Man'' exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in 1955.

Here we see endearing photos of ''Grandpa and the Kids'' (climbing all over him) (1953); two Asian angels standing in the window of ''Ideal Laundry'' (1946); and the unforgettable expressions of children ''Watching Santa'' through a window, (1944).

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One intriguing three-dimensional piece on view here should not be missed: the ''candid box.'' Leipzig designed a wooden box to resemble a small-dog carrier to disguise his camera. ''The only difficulties I encountered were from the occasional animal lover who wanted to see and pet my dog,'' Leipzig says.

* ''Growing Up in New York: The Photography of Arthur Leipzig'' continues at the Museum of the City of New York through March 30. It then travels to other venues, including the University of Maryland Art Gallery from October 1996 through January 1997.

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