Helen Levitt on Show – Paris

One of several highlights of my trip to Paris was a visit to the Helen Levitt show – I mentioned it and wrote a little about her last month. Paris transport is currently on strike, with restricted and unreliable services, and to reach the Fondation Cartier-Bresson a little south of Montparnasse from the city centre location of Paris Photo, was a lengthy and rather tiring experience – part of a day in which I covered over 10 miles and was largely on my feet from 9am to 3am the following morning. Fortunately this was in Paris, where almost every street has some interest (and my walks are always longer grow in the taking, as I can’t resist a detour down any street that looks particularly enticing.)

Which brings me to one small complaint about the gallery space. The exhibition was shown in two large white-walled galleries, images in a single line around the wall, the centre of the room a largely empty space (with a rather lost looking display cabinet.) Nowhere at all to sit and rest and reflect on the work. Even when I haven’t had to walk, visiting such shows is a tiring exercise. The look of the rooms would also be improved by some simple elegant benches or other seating in their centre, and it would be so much more pleasant a place for the serious contemplation of photography.

There are chairs on the top floor, up a couple more flights of stairs, in a room devoted to the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson. Here were a dozen or so of his best-known works, including 3 or 4 of his best images. The interior of the building is modernist and compliments the work of the master well, but perhaps felt just a little austere for Helen Levitt.

In the lower gallery (on the first floor) was a fine showing of her work on the streets of New York from the late 30s and early 1940s. As you can see from the feature I mentioned previously  (and also the other links in that feature) Levitt achieves a wonderful sense of capturing natural activities on the street, helped of course by the use of the relatively small and inconspicuous Leica camera (one of HC-B’s from that period is on display in a cabinet on the top floor, reminding us how much smaller they were than the current M series – I had my M8 in hand to compare.) She also made use of a device that enabled her to be looking away at 90 degrees from her subjects when taking pictures, so that although many of her subjects appear to be clear she is they, they think she is photographing something else.

It was interesting to see the several variants that she had made of some images, shown as her small reference prints she made, roughly 6×9 cm in size – a method that enabled her to see the work better. I do think it was a mistake to mount these in window matts which did not allow the viewer to see to the edge of the print and beyond, especially since the top lighting in the gallery cast a deep shadow across a significant strip across the top of each of these small images. But I also think it is an inappropriate treatment for work prints.

In the main these showed that Levitt moved relatively little when making her images, with at times a slight investigation of different framings. Often it was more a matter of taking a series of images as the children got on with their play. It was particularly intriguing to see the other versions of her image of black boys climbing and playing on the imposing porch of a otherwise rather bare brick building. In the selected image, one clings to the top of the porch, either about to climb up or let himself down , with another boy crouching down on the top looking at him, while another pair stage a boxing match to his right. The figure next to the crouching child has his fists up in a fighting stance, while the boy dead in the centre of the lintel, turned away from the photographer, apparently lands a powerful straight left to his left eye. A fifth figure hides behind the right-hand column, arms and legs on each side and peeping out at the woman with the camera. The image is a glimpse of the kind of dangerous activities that boys will get up to, emphasized by the height of the doorway and the risk of falling, both from that precarious grip of the clinging boy and the play-fighting on the top.

Another striking image of boys playing on the street shows two of them holding up the empty wooden frame for a mirror, with the broken shards in the gutter in front strong evidence as to what has rather recently happened. A couple of boys are examining them carefully as the others look on, none more intensely than the boy on a bicycle we see framed in place of the mirror. So intense that one can imagine that it was his stare (or perhaps something rather more physical, as if he had tried to ride through that mirror) had shattered it to fragments.

The show also had a few examples of Levitt’s work from Mexico, shown along with the similar images by Cartier-Bresson; it was his work – including these images – that inspired her to photograph people – after seeing it she lost interest in pictures of buildings or landscapes.

The upper floor concentrated mainly on her colour images some from the 1960s but also later work. These pictures were published as the book ‘Slide Show‘, which was also on display in the gallery. The book is actually considerably more impressive than the show, partly becuase I think the selection of images is a little different, but perhaps more importantly because of the sequencing and also the quality of the images.

It was interesting to be able to compare the actual prints on the wall with the versions on the printed page, and I spent some time doing so. In almost every case there were significant differences, and in most cases the book version was preferable. That the exceptions were mainly some of the dye transfer prints is perhaps unsurprising.

Probably some of the other colour prints may have changed significantly since they were produced. They were not so obviously poor as some of the high-priced vintage prints on offer in Paris Photo, but certainly the book prints had a ‘cleaner’ look and often had better shadow and highlight detail. I think the few prints on display in Paris Photo may have been better examples than some here.

I find her colour work uneven, with some finely captured little happenings, while a few left me rather cold and sometimes puzzled. Perhaps the images I like best are the more dynamic, where Levitt has captured the moment, such as the woman reading her newspaper on a windy street corner, rather than those that simply seem to me to be about colourful scenes.

Despite my quibbles it was really splendid to see such a collection of Levitt’s best images on display, and when I left well after an hour after I had arrived (together with the walking it meant I was rather later than I had intended at the MEP, and at the party after that) but feeling uplifted by the experience. Coming out from the Impasse in which the gallery is located and turning across the main road to the rue de la Gaite in the fading light I did feel somewhat gay, my tired steps a little lighter as I danced past the sex shops and theatres.

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