Helen Levitt: Photographer renowned for her portraits of street life in New York

Marcus Williamson
Sunday 23 March 2014 04:06

Helen Levitt was one of the great documentary photographers of the 20th century. In a career that spanned 60 years, she captured in still photographs and on film the daily lives of ordinary Americans. She has been compared to that other eminent photographic documentarian of the 20th century, Henri Cartier-Bresson, whom she met and whose influence she acknowledged.

Levitt was born in 1913, in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. After dropping out of high school, she found her first work in a photographic portrait studio in The Bronx, where she picked up the technical aspects of her profession. In 1936, she acquired a used Leica camera and equipped it with a winkelsucher, a special attachment which allowed her to take pictures sideways and therefore go relatively unnoticed on the streets.

Levitt's work was first published in Fortune magazine in July 1939 as part of a special issue on New York City. A Hallowe'en picture by her, of three masked children getting ready for trick-or-treat, was included the following year in a group show at New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).

She realised from conversations with Cartier-Bresson that photography could be an art form in itself and did not always have to be about social justice. Levitt was soon recognised for capturing what the French photographer called "the decisive moment" and her first major solo exhibition followed, at MoMA, in 1943. The show, Helen Levitt: Photographs Of Children, curated by Edward Steichen, reflected a city of children playing outside in the streets. This was a time before the advent of television and air conditioning in New York, a world where people lived and worked on the pavements, which became their living rooms.

It was this world of the underprivileged on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Yorkville and Harlem that she sought to document. One of her best known works of this era, Bubbles, is poetic in its simple beauty: four girls walking on the pavement looking at soap bubbles floating by. The art critic David Levi Strauss spoke of her photographs of this period, saying that they depicted the "society of the unspectacle – a vision of ordinary virtue".

Levitt had initially intended to publish the photos from the MoMA show as a book, but two film projects intervened. The 1948 film In The Street was shot with hidden cameras and is a simple but evocative reportage. In the same year, Levitt took the role of cinematographer in the production of The Quiet One, a documentary-drama film about the life of a young black boy in Harlem. Levitt, along with Sidney Meyers and Janice Loeb, were nominated for an Academy Award for this film in 1949.

In 1959 and 1960, Levitt experimented with street photography using colour film, the results of which would not be published until the 21st century. She remains, however, best known for her work in monochrome. During the Sixties and Seventies, Levitt worked in film, as cinematographer on The Savage Eye (1960), producer on An Affair Of The Skin (1963), assistant director on The Balcony (1963) and editor on The End Of An Old Song (1973).

The book A Way Of Seeing (1965) was a joint project with the writer and film critic James Agee, which finally saw the publication of Levitt's collection of photographs from the Forties. Her 1987 book In The Street: Chalk Drawings And Messages picked up on some of the themes of her 1948 film, capturing drawings by children on pavements and walls. One can sense in this project the influence of Brassai, the Hungarian photographer who captured the graffiti of Paris in the 1930s.

During the first part of this century, she published, in close succession, the photographic collections Crosstown (2001), Here And There (2003) and Slide Show (2005), which grouped together her colour photographs of the early Sixties. Her final retrospective monograph, called simply Helen Levitt, followed in 2008.

In all these collections there is little written commentary by Levitt, but invariably an essay by another author. "If it were easy to talk about, I'd be a writer," Levitt said of her reluctance to speak and write about her work. "Since I'm inarticulate, I express myself with images."

Last year, her work was included in the exhibition Street And Studio – An Urban History of Photography at the Tate Modern in London. "Her anticipation of moments is uncanny, as though she herself is a child in the game," the photographer David Goldblatt observed. "And yet there is no pretence of taking photographs as though a child. They are the photographs of a woman, a supremely sensitive and rare adult woman."

Helen Levitt, photographer and film- maker: born Brooklyn, New York, 31 August 1913; died Manhattan, 29 March 2009.

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