Archive for October, 2007

Bielsko-Biala Diary

Tuesday, October 30th, 2007

Photo festivals tend to keep you pretty busy, with meeting and talking to other photographers, but I like to find time to take a few pictures too. While I was in Bielsko-Biala last a just over a week ago for the 2007 FotoArtFestival , I kept a diary, and took some pictures both of the place and of the festival to illustrate it.

I’ve had to censor the diary a little for publication, and get rid of the libellous remarks and wilder thoughts, but I hope there are still a few controversial passages. You can read what I really thought about some of the shows, and see a little of what photographers get up to at such events.

On my way to the theatre in Bielsko-Biala

Friday lunchtime – I was sitting next to Joan Fontcuberta and Sarah Moon

Early on Saturday morning in a smoky Gallery Wzgorge

I’ve not finished the diary – still some material from the final day of the ‘Maraton’, the final party and a couple of pieces on some of the shows to add. Then there is my own presentation, the final session in the Maraton, and I also intend to put the text and some of the pictures of it on line as well (copyright issues mean I cannot use them all – but wherever possible I’ll link to the same or similar images.)

All the pictures I made in Poland were using a Fuji Finepix F31fd. Would I buy one again? Probably not, but some of them aren’t bad. But not having a viewfinder is still a pain.
You can also read the diary – and some of my presentation – from the 2005 FotoArtFestival on line.

ROOF UNIT at [ space ]

Sunday, October 28th, 2007

First I’d better declare an interest. Actually I’m not sure I need to. This is – I hope – a very personal blog, one that reflects my own personal involvement in the medium of photography, and my conviction that if it isn’t personal, it isn’t worth saying (or photographing.)

But I was at [ space ] in Hackney on Friday night partly because my own work was appearing in the ‘Roof Unit Foundations’ show there, though I would have gone in any case to see the Brian Griffin show also opening there (see separate article.) My pictures in it are ones I now feel a certain distance from, as I took them in 1983.

Roof Unit is a group of photographers based in a former soap factory in the East End. I met one of them, Toby Smith, at an ‘Olympic Symposium’ held at [ space ], an arts complex in Hackney, in June, (where I also saw what will almost certainly be the best film to come out of the London 2012 Olympics.)

Toby talked at the symposium about his bid for a photographic contract for the games, made together with Photofusion, based in Brixton. I contribute work to the Photofusion library and I’ve been connected with it – if fairly peripherally – since its earlier incarnation in Webbs Road when I joined a ‘Men’s Group’ run by Crispin Hughes.

I met Toby again at a Photofusion opening on the day before the contract was announced (it didn’t go to Photofusion, although their bid was credible enough to get to the final stages) and naturally talked to him about my work in the Olympic area and the Lower Lea generally since the early 1980s. He was interested and later took a look at my River Lea site, and I was delighted to be invited to take part in the Roof Unit show in Hackney with a group of 4 colour pictures from those I had made around 1983.

This is a picture from the edge of the main Olympic site, and a scene that when I saw it made me exclaim ‘Man Ray’, although I have really no reason to think the wrapped object is a sewing machine. I’ll put the other 3 of my images at the bottom of this piece :

Bromley by Bow, 1982.
Lightjet print on dibond, 30x20cm. Peter Marshall

Back in April this year, after I’d photographed the Manor Gardens Allotments – now sadly lost to the Olympic juggernaut – I wrote: “part of the charm of the allotments at the moment is that they are a little run-down and the plot-holders huts have a very personal and rather heath-robinson quality. a still life photographer could spend their life here and never exhaust the subject matter.” The three images by Gesche Wurfel provide a powerful illustration of the fact, working precisely and in square-format colour. I particularly liked Shed 2, with its perfect balance between inside and outside lighting connecting the interior with the allotments and its use of colour, particularly the glowing orange plastic spade, the reds of the window frame and the yellow hedge outside.

Rita Soromenho‘s bunch of dandelion heads collected on a walk by the Lea were also glorious for their colour and richness, transmuting these wild and so-common plants into an image of sumptuous beauty. The fine detail and glow against the black background produced in this image made on a scanner gives an amazing realism.

Jason Larkin adds a touch of human interest in his two pictures taken in one of the many small factory units on the site. Heads peer out between stacked white boxes of scotch salmon, and a crudely tattooed hand cuts through a slice of rich orange fish. Of course all of the work on show implies human presence, whether in the eerie night-time pylons of Anthony Marsland (one suspects putting the cables underground was a decision made largely on doubtful aesthetic grounds) or the goal-posts of East Marsh by Mark King, seen in dramatic light and one of a number of sporting facilities to be lost during the Olympic development, in this case I think for a coach park.

Chris Littlewood’s three Ebb and Flow images show the patterns left by the rise and fall of water and waste, soon to be a thing of the past above in the site area with the building of a lock on the Prescott Channel, which may enable the use of barges to carry away spoil from the building sites, but perhaps more importantly will protect the delicate noses of the athletes and corporate guests for whom the Olympics is staged from the sewage sometimes carried upstream on the tide.

Reinaldo Loureiro‘s untitled C-type print reminded me of the travellers caravans I was invited into for tea many years ago when helping to protect them from police harassment in Manchester. The same mixture of kitsch religious images, plastic flowers and everyday life – in this case a plate of biscuits and a beer can. Toby Smith‘s Silo 7 is very much the kind of view of derelict industry that has excited some of my own work over the years, and I would have welcomed seeing more of his work, even if that meant smaller prints. Jon Wyatt‘s panoramic image of the ‘Greenway’, the path on the Northern Sewage Outfall, shows it in dramatic light with a fine mass of grey clouds. I wasn’t sure whether it might have been improved by rather less of the brown of the path in the foreground, but perhaps this was a deliberate reference to what lay under the photographers feet on its route to Beckton.

Outside in the corridor are two large light boxes with Duratran lambda prints by Allesandra Chila. These ‘Olympian Visions’ were (I think) of a group of volunteers tidying up one of the filter beds of a former water works and a view over the rooftops of Hackney Wick. I’m not sure exactly from where this was taken, but many of us will have spent considerable time waiting for Silverlink and contemplating a rather similar view. Although I found these prints impressive, I also felt a little disappointment when I moved in for a closer view, which gave me grain or texture rather than the greater detail for which I had hoped.

Also in the show were Peter Ainsworth, with an image of fridges piled up behind a wall and a white van parked in front, Sophie Gerrard with a picture of a lock-keepers house on the Bow Back Rivers (an interesting lock, recently restored,) and Wendy Pye, whose Ipod slideshow gave us some fleeting glimpses around Marshgate Lane and the Old River Lea; too fleeting for me – I would have liked to see more images and a slightly slower presentation rate.

It’s an interesting show, combining a variety of approaches to the area, much of which will disappear and whose whole character will be changed over the next few years, a change which I can only view with considerable regret.

The Lea Navigation carried timber to many timber yards. Upper Edmonton, 1983.
Lightjet print on dibond, 20x30cm. Peter Marshall

Ponders End, 1983.
Lightjet print on dibond, 20x30cm. Peter Marshall

Hackney Wick, 1983.
Lightjet print on dibond, 20x30cm. Peter Marshall

Brian Griffin: The Water People

Sunday, October 28th, 2007

One of the things that I admire about Brian Griffin’s work is that he takes what could be dull, commercial projects and turns them into something personal and exciting. In his early years it was his portraits of businessmen.

If you have the misfortune to read any of the business press or by mistake open the business section of your newspaper rather than send it directly to recycling, you can unfortunately find too many tedious suits, often supplied by company PR who generally have as much imagination as the typical woodlouse.That you will also sometimes come across some more interesting photography probably owes a great deal to the example of his work, inspiring other photographers.

A commission by Reykjavik Energy in Iceland could have been boring. Brian has turned it into a mythical narrative, based very loosely on Jules Verne’s ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth‘, in which he undertakes a dangerous journey to discover the city of the water people, who he then photographs. Two of the more interesting images in the show for me are of structures which I assume belong to Reykjavik Energy which suggest a different science fiction, clearly the alien landing craft.

The portraits of the water people are I think taken through sheets of glass with water or other more viscous clear liquid on them to give distortion effects. Years ago I had a box of sheets of various patterned glass samples some of which could also produce similar – but generally more regular – effects when used close to the lens.

It was a nice opening at [ space ], where it is on show together with water medallions by Brynja and in the next-door gallery Roof Unit Foundations, all running until 15 December 2007. I’m pleased to report that the opening was liberally supplied not with water but with Pilsner Urquell, one of the great bottled beers. Such a change from the brew at London’s best known photography space.

Brian also has another show in London at the moment – Teamphoto, which I’ve written about previously – at the (German) Gymnasium at St Pancras until Novermber 19, celebrating the great achievement of adding 20 minutes to my travel time to Paris. I’ll try out the new service in a few weeks on my way home from Paris Photo.

Water Portraits

Last week I spent some time with another photographer of ‘water people’, Alex ten Napel, whose work I’ll write about shortly. His approach to water portraits is more direct, getting his subjects (or helping them) to duck under water just before he photographs them, standing in the swimming pool.

Paul Trevor at Rich Mix

Saturday, October 27th, 2007

Last week I got e-mail from Paul Trevor and realised I’d not actually been able to see his work when I called in at Rich Mix Cultural Foundation on the Bethnal Green Road at the top of Brick Lane – and I’ve since met several people who had the same experience as me.

Paul contacted the gallery after hearing from me, and whether as a result or otherwise, when I called in there on Friday, things were very different. I went down the stairs again and sat on the old sofa, and enjoyed around 300 of Paul’s pictures on the large display screen, projected at roughly six second intervals in a show lasting roughly 30 minutes.

As I sat down, one of his pictures from the ‘Battle of Lewisham‘ was on screen, and what followed was a kaleidoscope of life from London’s East End in all its rich diversity. Of course many of the pictures were familiar to me – including some of the half dozen or so I’d featured in the London Arts Cafe show a few years ago, as well as those I’d seen in various shows and publications over the years, but there was also a great deal of work new to me.

The images in the display were a selection from the 5000 scanned from Paul’s contact sheets by the London Metropolitan University as the initial step in a project to produce 500 high quality scans for his Eastender Archive. Paul obviously took rather more care over his contact than some photographers (me for example!) but there were still some that were a little too light or dark, as well as those for which a straight unmanipulated print cannot do justice. The scans were of surprisingly high quality – considerably better than those I made of my own contacts for my very first CD project, ‘London Pictures 1992’, made in 1993 when I found that none of the clients I gave the CD to had the equipment to play it. Technology has moved on considerably since then! Contacts from 35mm are 1.5×1″, and a scan at 1200 dpi gives a 1800×1200 pixel image, sufficient for most display devices.

The sofa and screen are in a hole down a set of stairs from the main floor level. There are now two large projected images on the walls above this, one at the side and one on the back wall. Although the quality of these large projections is still rather washed out – even in the dull light of approaching dusk that I was there, at least the projectors are now set up correctly without the distortion of aspect ratio and keystoning apparent in my previous vision, and the images are shown on a blank wall avoiding the ventilation duct that formed a part of every image previously,

Its a shame that my write-up here – and in my previous piece has had to concentrate so much on the practicalities rather than the images. But this is only an initial stage in the project. Paul Trevor’s work in the East End of London is certainly one of the most significant bodies of documentary work produced in the UK in the era and deserves considerably more care and respect than was shown by the gallery – and a much fuller treatment by critics – including myself – at a later date when the project is in a more complete form.

There were a few pictures in those I watched that I would be surprised to find in the final cut, knowing something of the strength and depth of Paul’s work. A few perhaps where his feeling for the people or the place or the occasion is stronger than the photographic representation, as well as a little duplication, but the overall impression is hardly diminished.

There were many places and situations that I recognised, and some – in particular the anti-racist demonstrations – where I was scanning the image to see if I was visible, at the time more as a participant than a photographer. I didn’t find myself, but Paul’s work forms a very recognisable and very intimate view of an East End that I’ve only really glimpsed over the years as an outsider.

So, get along to Rich Mix and see the show – its on until 30 Nov, and Paul’s work is by far the most interesting show in London at the moment.


Tuesday, October 23rd, 2007

You have just missed one of the world’s best photo festivals (although the exhibitions remain open until Sunday.) I’m not actually sure I should tell you about it, because it was already standing room only for at least one session, and part of what makes it so great is it’s manageable size. If you all come for the next one it may not be the same!

I first heard of Bielsko-Biala when I was invited to show work at the first FotoArtFestival there in 2005. I hate to travel. I’ve even refused jobs on the grounds that I couldn’t get there on a Zone 1-6 London Travelcard. Before then I hadn’t been on an airliner since I was about 15 – and then only on a tour of the workshops at London Heathrow where my eldest brother then worked (and I suspect it was a DC-3.) I started taking my ‘carbon footprint’ (not that we called it that then) and energy use seriously in the late 1960’s, when I was “a friend of the earth before the earth had friends” or at least before the organisation was set up here in the UK.

Two names made me decide to bend my principles sufficiently to make the trip to Poland as well as sending work there. I wanted to meet Eikoh Hosoe and Ami Vitale.

Gunars Binde, Eikoh Hosoe, Ami Vitale and Peter Marshall. Photo by Jutka Kovacs

I also wrote about many of the other fine photographers I met there, including Stefan Bremer Gunars Binde, Sarah Saudek, Pilar Alabajar, Shadi Ghadirian, Lars Tunbjork, Bevis Fusha, Ali Borovali, Obie Oberholzer and Vasil Stanko for ‘About Photography‘, and although those features are no longer on line there, you can find them on the ‘Wayback Machine‘ along with those about photographers unable to come to Bielsko, such as Joachim Ladefoged and Boris Mikhailov, and Mario Giacomelli, who of course died in 2000. One curious feature of many of the pages on the Wayback machine is that my photograph is replaced by that of the current guide.

This year’s FotoArtFestival also brought a range of stars to Bielsko-Biala, including Sarah Moon, Misha Gordin and the author of one of the best-known histories of photography, Naomi Rosenblum. The outstanding show for me was Walter Rosenblum‘s ‘Message from the Heart‘ and I had the privilege of visiting it together with Naomi and his daughter, the film-maker Nina Rosenblum. A screening of her film about her father was another highlight, despite some technical problems. I was there to give a presentation, which included some of my own work as well as images by John Benton-Harris and others who have photographed on the streets of England.
At the moment I’m still exhausted from my trip there and the journey home, and still writing up my memories and processing the images I took there on my highly pocketable Fuji Finepix F31fd. Even though these are only jpegs, it is still worthwhile importing them into Lightroom and adjusting as if they were raw files. The difference can be astonishing, and it somehow seems to result in less degradation than similar processing in Photoshop or other image-processing software.

The F31fd may not be as good as the Nikon D200, but it is considerably easier to carry! And if a pink phone was good enough for Eikoh, then I think I can manage with it for things like this.

Eikoh Hosoe photographing in Alcatraz, Bielsko, Poland

Much more later!

Peter Marshall


Wednesday, October 17th, 2007

Olaudah Equiano (1745-97) was certainly a remarkable man, and one whose name deserves to be remembered this year along with William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson and the others who helped to bring about the end of the transatlantic slave trade in 1807. His life was an incredible story both of adventure and of a man who managed to work his way out of slavery and become a successful businessman and best-selling author. Although born Olaudah Equiano, he was renamed Gustavus Vassa (after a Swedish noble) by the British naval captain who bought him in 1757, and used that name for the rest of his life.

Equiano took part in many adventures and various schemes including those to resettle Africans in Sierra Leone, and also formed ‘The Sons of Africa’, probably the first organised black political group in England, who campaigned against slavery through meetings, letters and articles, as well as being active in the English radical left.

But Equiano is also a great mystery. Despite the best-selling autobiography that did much to promote the abolitionist cause, there is still considerable doubt about the actual place and circumstances of his birth. And although his death made the newspapers at the time, there is no record of where he was buried, and little seems to be known about the details of what happened to his estate. His English wife, Susan Cullen, died in 1795, and his elder daughter a few months after him in 1897 , but when his only surviving daughter, Johanna Vassa, reached the age of 21, she inherited the large sum for the time of £950. His will is in the National Archives.

Equiano disappeared without trace, and for many years his contribution to the movement was also largely forgotten, but in recent years much research and several books have brought his memory back to life. Joanna Vassa (as she is more normally known) lived until 1857, marrying Congregational minister Henry Bromley in her early twenties.

People gather around the grave of Joanna Vasser as Arthur Torrington talks.

Arthur Torrington OBE, the secretary of the Equiano Society told us much of the story of the man and his daughter as he led a short conducted walk to her grave which was re-discovered in Abney Park Cemetery in 2005 in a badly damaged and overgrown state. It has now been cleaned and restored and parts of the inscription can be made out. Joanna, her husband and the second wife he married after her death were all buried in the same grave. There is no record known of any children from the marriage.

JOANNA, HENRY BROMLEY and VASSA can clearly be read on the gravestone, though some other words are vague.

More pictures on My London Diary

North London Against Gun and Knife Crime

Wednesday, October 17th, 2007

I hope that most north Londoners are against gun and knife crime, but relatively few turned up to express this at the march starting from Clapton Pond at noon on Sunday, but this is just the start of a campaign by Communities Against Gun and Knife Crime, and one in which I can only hope they will have some success.

Clapton Pond is a location curiously missing from modern maps – not marked on any of my several street atlases or the Ordnance Survey, but popular on the fronts of buses, and you can hardly miss the pond as you walk, ride or drive past.

It’s probably safest not to stop, as this is Hackney’s notorious “murder mile” along the Upper and Lower Clapton Road. Drug-related crime rose to levels in 2002 that led one of the senior consultant surgeons from nearby Homerton Hospital to go and study techniques used to treat stabbings and shootings in South Africa’s most dangerous township, Soweto – where statistically the crime rate was lower. In 2006 it was reported as having a murder on average every two weeks.

Chimes nightclub, a few yards from the start of the march, was forced to close following a murder outside – the last of a number of incidents there – in Jan 2006

Unlike the similar march in the London Borough of Brent, in north-west London, this does not appear to receive support from the local authority (it covers two, starting in Hackney and finishing in Haringay) or from the Metropolitan Police, although they were of course on hand for traffic control.

Marchers prepare to move off

The march was organised by CAGK, Communities Against Gun and Knife Crime, one of whose members has had one relative shot and two stabbed. Less than a hundred marchers started on the march from Clapton Pond, but by the time it had reached its destination for a rally at Tottenham Green, I’m told the numbers had more than doubled (I had left to photograph elsewhere.)

I hope they get more support for the meeting later this week, and gain support for their positive policies to cut down crime – in particular providing activities, education and real jobs that provide hope and a future away from crime for youth in the area.

The march starts.

More pictures

Peter Marshall

Two Prime Ministers

Wednesday, October 17th, 2007

Its not often that I get the chance to photograph two prime ministers at once. And I turned down the only invitation I’ve had to actually photograph Blair inside No 10 Downing Street because it would have meant getting up earlier than usual and paying a peak hour rail fare!

But on Saturday, outside Australia House in the Strand, were Australian Prime Minister John Howard and Tasmanian Premier Paul Lennon, looking rather brighter than usual.

It was a small demonstration against the destruction of ancient forests in Tasmania, where legislation to preserve the wild rainforest has been ineffectual and further clearance will be accelerated if the building of a new pulp mill is allowed.

Perhaps the forthcoming elections there will change things. Ironically, one of the economic incentives to the clearing of forests is carbon offsetting, as new plantations in the cleared space can be marketed to assuage the consciences of polluters. “Burning forests for tree farms”, as the protesters banner read, truly is a “carbon trading ripoff” and demonstrates the madness of the whole offsetting approach.

The only sensible way to attack increasing carbon dioxide levels is to cut carbon emissions, by using less carbon fuels, farming less cows, and repairing and re-using manufactured goods wherever possible (and, as a last resort, recycling.)

Personally, I’m feeling a little guilty as I’m planning to get on a plane in a few days. But it will be the first time for over 2 years, and only the third time in over 60. I think I’ve offset it by the many thousands of miles I’ve travelled by bicycle.

A few more pictures, as usual 

Peter Marshall

Stop the War, Allow the Demo

Wednesday, October 17th, 2007

This year Britain’s members of parliament were welcomed back from their summer hols by a demo organised by ‘Stop the War’ and CND. In a masterfully inept move, the Met police, doubtless pushed by Downing St, brought out and dusted off legislation passed in 1838 against the Chartists, then seen to be threatening civilisation as the rich and powerful enjoyed it.

Nothing could have boosted the demonstrators more than a ban on marching, and the numbers who turned up in Trafalgar Square for the rally would have made a ban impossible to implement short of mass arrests and Burma-style draconian measures.

An hour or so before the rally, the police/government had to back down, giving the demonstrators permission to march as far as Bridge Street, just short of Parliament Square.

In the end the had to back down further, allowing the marchers bit by bit access to Parliament Square and eventually at least some were allowed to go to their final goal and lobby their members of parliament. Some of the police were obviously rattled by this climb-down and took it out rather by harassing the photographers, trying to prevent them from photographing the march as it moved down Whitehall, and I was almost knocked flying by a firm shove as I was walking backwards, camera to eye. Another officer put out an arm to stop me and apologised.

Police then kept the marchers penned up around the square, either in Parliament Street or in front of Brian Haw’s pitch in the square itself, and some conflicts seemed more or less inevitable, and few were surprised when there was a sit-down in the middle of the traffic junction that police were trying hard to keep open.

Frustrated marchers sit down in the middle of the traffic junction

Sensible policing would have taken the march through the area as quickly as possible, stopping the traffic for the march to pass, and moving it on to College Green or Victoria Gardens, where the organisers might have made some further speeches before an orderly dispersal. Trouble-makers would then have been relatively isolated and much simpler to police.

A  popular sentiment!

The event dragged on a long time, and the sky began to get very gloomy and threaten rain. I’d photographed the sit-down, but nothing else seemed to be happening. So I – and some of the other photographers – decided it was probably time to go home.

No sooner had we left the scene than the police sprang into action, forcibly removing the demonstrators from the roadway. Many moved onto the square itself, pushing down and piling up the barriers that were erected to prevent access to it some weeks ago. I missed taking pictures of this, but you can’t be everywhere all the time.

The event was at least handled a little better than ‘Sack Parliament‘ that met returning MPs last year. Then one of my colleagues was hospitalised by the police (he is taking them to court) and there were many more arrests, even though there were relatively few demonstrators.

Many more pictures of course on ‘My London Diary

Peter Marshall 

Helen Levitt – Street Colour

Wednesday, October 17th, 2007

Jim Casper‘s Lens Culture has long been one of my favourite sites, and each new issue brings much of interest. One of the highlights among the latest on-line issue is a set of 24 images, some in colour, by that doyenne of street photography, Helen Levitt, now in her 90s. Work by her from seven decades, starting in 1938, is on show at the Fondation Cartier-Bresson in Paris until 23 December 2007 (if you read French it is worth downloading the press PDF from the site.)

Levitt was a pioneer in the use of colour, with Guggenheim fellowships in 1959 and 1960 to explore its use in her work. Unfortunately most of these early transparencies were stolen by a curiously selective burglar (who apparently took little else) in 1970, and have not been seen since. But in 1974 she had the first showing of colour photography at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, ‘Slide Show‘, organised by John Szarkowski, some two years before William Eggleston‘s work was shown there.

Levitt is noted for not talking much about her work, but there are several interesting interviews on-line, including (as Lens Culture also mentions) a NPR feature with some clips of her talking.

More About Helen Levitt

You can see images by Helen Levitt on Lens Culture and at the links above. There are some further links to sources and images at the end of this feature.

Helen Levitt was born in 1913 in Brooklyn (many sources give the date incorrectly as 1918); in 1931 she quit school and started working for a portrait photographer in the Bronx, where she received a good technical grounding.

In 1935 she met and saw the work of Walker Evans and Henri Cartier-Bresson; Evans she thought was “brilliant” but Cartier-Bresson was a “genius”. It was their impact that decided her to become a photographer, and in 1936 she bought her first Leica. She went with Cartier-Bresson on at least one occasion as he photographed in New York. From him she saw that photography could be art, and determined that she would be an artist with a camera. This led her to spend time studying paintings in New York’s museums, learning from them lessons about composition, and the use of light which have a powerful influence on her work.

In New York, the prevailing tradition of photography was that of the New York Photo League, documenting the people of the poorer working class areas. Levitt also learnt from this and her subject matter was also the people of the working class areas of New York, particularly Spanish Harlem and the Lower East Side. Here in the late 1930s she found life still being lived in a vivid way on the streets, especially on hot summer days when it was too hot for anyone to stay inside. This was an era before air-conditioning and television, and she found the streets crowded with children playing who became her main subject and she photographed them with warmth and humour.

As well as the children themselves, Levitt also saw and photographed their drawings. In an age before the spray can, the streets and walls were filled with chalk drawings, often – as with modern graffiti – of striking energy and originality.

In 1938-9 she became assistant to Walker Evans, and also met the writer James Agee, who would later work with her on her first book, ‘A Way of Seeing’, not published until 1965. Unlike Cartier-Bresson, Evans believed strongly in the need to crop images to make stronger compositions, and Levitt learnt from his practice.
She went with Walker Evans when he was taking his series of subway portraits using a camera hidden under his coat, sitting with him so that he was less obvious. These pictures were only published as a book many years later, ‘Many Are Called‘ (1966.) In some of her own Levitt also took pictures of people who were unaware of being photographed, at times using a mirror device photograph at right angles to the direction in which she was apparently shooting. This was particularly important in some of her pictures of children playing, enabling her to capture images without distraction.

Levitt’s one major body of work away from New York was made when she went to Mexico in 1941. While there she worked as a film editor with Luis Buñuel. Cartier-Bresson had worked for a year in Mexico in 1933, and his pictures from there were shown in Mexico in 1935, and he had brought them to New York.

In 1943 she had her first one-person exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (M0MA), curated by Edward Steichen. Although she returned to street photography around 1950, her next solo showing at MoMA was not until over 30 years later, although her work was included in major group exhibits, including Steichen’s ‘The Family of Man‘.

In the years immediately after the war the Levitt and Agee worked together with painter Janice Loeb on the film, ‘In the Street‘, a documentary about everyday life made using a hidden camera on the streets of New York’s East Harlem. All three worked with film-maker Sidney Meyers on the Oscar-nominated documentary about a young African-American boy, ‘The Quiet One‘ (1948).

Two Guggenheim Grants, in 1959 and 1960, enabled her to investigate the use of colour transparency film in her work on the streets. Tragically the great majority of this work was stolen in a puzzling burglary in 1970, where apparently little else was stolen. But Levitt made new colour images to replace the stolen work, leading to a ‘Slide Show’, curated by John Szarkowski at MoMA in 1974, and published as a book in 2005.

In 1991, Levitt’s work was shown at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and she received a Master of Photography award from the ICP in New York. Other retrospectives came at the The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and elsewhere, although it was the use of her pictures in the opening sequences of the 2001 Ken Burns PBS documentary ‘New York‘ that brought her work as “one of the great living poets of urban life” and of the people of New York to a wider audience.

Other Web References

Laurence Miller Gallery
The gallery have represented Levitt for many years.
Stephen Daiter Gallery

Slide Show: Powerhouse Books

Helen Levitt: 10 Photographs,
A lengthy and interesting essay by Thomas Dikant on her career through a detailed study of 10 pictures.

Review of ‘Here and There’ by Sarah Boxer – New York Times
May require registration.