Leon Levinstein was born in a small town in West Virginia to Russian-Jewish parents. His father lost his clothing business during the Depression and the family moved to Baltimore, where Levinstein attended the Maryland Institute of Art. He remained in Baltimore until he was inducted into the army during World War II and served in the Air Force. He returned to Baltimore briefly after the war before moving to New York, where he worked as an art director at a small advertising agency.
Levinstein took a painting course with Stuart Davis at the New School. It was during this period that he began to photograph and took a class in photography with Alexey Brodovitch. He attended classes at the Photo League and within a year became a regular student of Sid Grossman's, first at the Photo League and then later at Grossman's apartment.
Levinstein's work gained recognition in the 1950s, when his photographs were included in several important exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, including The Family of Man. In the following years he worked in color as well as black-and-white and traveled to Mexico, India, and Europe. His primary subject remained New York, where he lived until his death in 1988.