Research on Helen Levitt

HELEN LEVITT

“A lot of my early pictures are, I think, quite funny. And these days I tend to look for comedy more and more.” – Helen Levitt

Helen Levitt was born in Brooklyn New York on August 31st 1913 and died aged 95 in her home in New York.

After dropping out from school Levitt worked for a portrait photographer,  but on seeing the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson she had an ambition to take “a picture that would stand up by itself”.  After she met and befriended Henri Cartier-Bresson she purchased a small 35mm Leica and started taking photographs on the streets of New York, she had attached a right-angled view finder to her camera so that she could photograph discreetly.

She is most known for her photographs of New York street scenes in the 1930’s and 1940’s, her photos captured everyday life in poorer neighbourhoods and street corners. There is a humour to her photos, children, in their natural environments, playing as children should, unaware of the camera. There are photographs of children climbing on buildings, looking at their reflections in cars and wearing Halloween masks. Photos of children’s chalk drawings from playing games on the street, something which is seen less in the modern world. Ordinary moments captured in a timeless photo, a documentary of neighbourhoods and children of 1930’s-1940’s Harlem. Strangely Levitt did not have children herself and it is suggested that she did not even like children.

Historically there was a new interest in children in 1930’s America and pictures of street children became popular. Childhood was being discovered where previously children would have been sent to work play now took precedence; there was the emergence of Disney and media being directed at children. The depression had created a fear of a missing generation and so children became important, Disney films with their moral undertones helped to create an image of wonder and adventure in childhood. Although Levitt did not seem to capture the upper class view of children but preferred to photograph poor and under privileged children who regardless of class could still enjoy imagination, play and childhood.

Levitt eventually showed her street photography to fellow photographer Walker Evans and they became firm friends, she often travelled with him on the subways whilst he photographed with a hidden camera. In a NY Times article Levitt says about Walker Evans ”He was funny”, ”Walker needed someone to go with him in the subway” while he secretly shot pictures of people, she explained. ”I would just sit next to him, so we were just two people in the subway, so people wouldn’t stare at him. It was fun. He had a special trick.” (Boxer, 2004)

Levitt also worked as a full-time film editor, In the late 40’s early 50’s Levitt along with her sister-in-law Janice Loeb  and James Agee made a short film entitled ‘In the street’. (Levitt, In the street, 1948)  ‘In the street’ can be viewed from the following link:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h8m2m_C1Fbg

Her first published work was in the Fortune magazine special New York City edition in July; and in 1943 she held her first solo show. She was also one of the pioneers of colour photography using vintage dye-transfer colour prints , although her earlier colour works were lost, more than 30 years after her solo show her colour photographs (mostly from the 70’s) were displayed in a slide show at the New York Museum of Modern Art.

Her style is very similar to her mentors, peers and friends Bresson and Evans however I find her photos to be more humorous, her camera was an extension to her eyes and she photographed scenes ‘in the moment’ , capturing what may have interested or amused her. In researching Helen Levitt I discovered that she was not technically minded. An article in the Telegraph states, ‘By her own admission she was a “lousy technician” and found the people she photographed far more interesting than the technical aspects of a shot’.

When asked about a particle photo of a boy laughing at a crying girl Levitt replied ”I asked the boy, ‘Why is she crying?’ and he said, ‘I told her she would never get married.’ He must have taunted her for a while.” (Boxer, 2004)

I would imagine that children’s honesty and simplicity intrigued her in the midst of poverty, the threat of war, and socialist, fascist and communist movements of the time. It does not seem that Levitt was taking her photographs from a particular journalistic or political point of view but merely as an observer, a passer-by to a scene, documenting life. In an interview Levitt says “And I decided I should take pictures of working class people and contribute to the movements,” she said. “Whatever movements there were — socialism, communism, whatever was happening. And then I saw pictures of Cartier Bresson, and realized that photography could be an art — and that made me ambitious.” (Levitt, 2002)  In fact James Agee uses the term ‘lyrical photography’ as a characterization of Levitt’s pictures as they are not meant to be social or political but instead manage to capture the drama in the moment and tell a story.

She is a lesser known photographer and perhaps this is due to the fact that she did not appear to like interviews or publicising herself. When asked about a book of her black and white photographs she states; it is called ”Here and There,” she said, because ”that’s what it was, a lot of pictures here and there.” (Boxer, 2004) It almost seems nonchalant. In a dissertation and thesis entitled ‘The Poetics and Politics of Children’s Play: Helen Levitt’s Early Work’ it states that Helen Levitt never liked the process of self-promotion. (Gand, 2011).

An interesting lecture by Jeff Rosenheim, photography curator at the Met on Helen Levitt’s work can be seen by following the link below, interestingly he was also a personal friend of Levitt.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yE6MuU9hITo

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