Cameron, Julia M.
Coburn, Alvin L.
Talbot,William H. Fox
Biography: Helen Levitt made her mark on photography during
a volatile time in America. The social crisis of the 1930's inspired
photographers to work for government funded projects to expose
and correct the social problems. Walker Evans documented the rural
south and Lewis Hine labor conditions while Dorothea Lange revealed
urban plights. Helen Levitt chose a different path. At age 23
the subject she'd singularly devote a long career was located
just blocks away in the children of New York neighborhoods.
As a child raised in Brooklyn, NY she had a fascination with
sounds, dance, books and foreign films. Feeling unstimulated at
school she left before graduating and went to work for a commercial
photographer gaining technical knowledge over the next four years.
Her self-taught education aligned her with Henri Cartier-Bresson
and Walker Evans. Cartier-Bresson's work taught her three lessons:
a blunt photographic record of ordinary facts could reveal the
mystery and fantasy within daily life; that the poetry in such
pictures turned its back on conventional value systems and notions
of beauty; and that this art, which trafficked in the momentary,
was not haphazard.
Flooding herself with art exhibits, photography, theater performances
and film created for Helen a personal photo-learning experience.
In 1936 she purchased the same compact Leica Cartier-Bresson used
and attached a right-angle viewfinder. The equipment was central
in her ability to maneuver through the neighborhood streets and
photograph the natural choreography of children at play. She could
remain on the fringes without disturbing the ongoing reality.
This method of street photography complemented her respect for
the privacy of her subjects. Being so consumed with one specific
subject, a career in photojournalism held no interest for her.
"Levitt is not concerned with the popularity of her work
now, nor has she ever been. She knows that what separates her
from others is what makes her an artist, and that what brings
her into closest intimacy with them is her wit," said Maria
Morris Hambourg, curator in charge of the Department of Photographs
at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. "She
has little faith in opinions or interpretations other than her
own, and she wishes to live without the intrusions of publicity.
She asks that we trust the pictures, not the words."
When I contacted Levitt's New York gallery for access to additional
images not surprisingly I was denied. However, I did learn at
87 Ms. Levitt is in stable health and working on projects. Her
photographs can be enjoyed on several Web sites and books In the
Street, Photographers on Photographers, Helen Levitt: Mexico City,
and A Way of Seeing.
A theme of her New York work is the doorway as a threshold from
private to public space, but her images will confirm as city dwellers
can attest, neighborhood stoops, sidewalks and streets can be
quite an intimate setting. Her black and white shots are almost
all exterior, at a medium distance from the subjects and depict
the self at its most extroverted, surreal, natural state, children
at play. Levitt's found children are emotional, masked, climbing,
miming, dancing, dreaming and acting. The space in her images
have been described as stage-like and its inhabitants an unending
cast of characters before, during and after the transformation.
What I appreciate about her work is an involvement by the viewer
in a private, mischievous moment of self-discovery. Levitt doesn't
manipulate the situation, rather anticipates it and removes evidence
of herself as photographer so we can enjoy a new moment we wouldn't
"Helen Levitt's extraordinary gift is to perceive in a transient
split second, and in the most ordinary of places - the common
city street - the richly imaginative, various, and tragically
tender moments of ordinary human existence," said poet Wallace
Stevens. (Colleen Carroll)
Profotos > Education
> Reference Desk > Photography Masters > Helen Levitt