Helen Levitt – Street Colour

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
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