Wednesday Art Idol

Helen Levitt: a pioneer of street photography who captured the theatre of daily life in New York
By Finn Blythe | Art | 13 October 2021
Above:

Helen Levitt, New York, 1940. All images © Film Documents LLC Courtesy Galerie Thomas Zander, Cologne

This article is part of HERO Dailies – Essential culture, curated daily and also part of Wednesday Art Idol

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One of the 20th century’s most accomplished and under-recognised photographers, Helen Levitt spent the best part of 70 years capturing the ebb and flow of daily life on the streets of her native New York City. From the early 1930s to shortly before her death in 2009, Levitt’s photography is defined by its ability to reveal theatre and performance within the seemingly ordinary confines of urban living. Initially shooting in black and white before pioneering the use of colour, her photographs elevate the mundane into lyrical, self-contained stories that tap into the soul of New York’s fabled past.

Born in Brooklyn in 1913, Levitt took early inspiration from the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, the founding father of street photography whose signature use of 35mm film prompted Levitt to buy her own Leica at the age of 18. Her earliest photography took place exclusively on the streets and sidewalks of New York, capturing local children from diverse backgrounds playing together with an abandon that contrasted starkly to their often bleak surroundings. The dynamism and vibrant life in these photographs (many of which were presented in Levitt’s debut exhibition, Photographs of Children) is driven by the strength of community that Levitt encountered, at a time when ‘the street’ was an essential social hub.

GALLERY

After befriending fellow photographer Walker Evans and novelist James Agee in the late 30s, Levitt introduced moving image into her practice, collaborating with the latter on her first two documentaries. The Quiet One combined documentary and narrative film making in a story of a young African American boy piecing his life back together after a tough start to life on the streets of New York. Her second, In the Street, was a sixteen-minute silent film offering a street-level view of life in Spanish Harlem during the mid-40s. Co-shot and edited by Levitt, it represents an extension of her still photography, with beautifully nuanced observations on what she refers to as, “The theatre and the battleground” of the street. 

Levitt’s engagement with film led a decade immediately following the end of World War II in which she concentrated almost exclusively on editing and directing, immersing herself in elements surrealism and the avant garde. It wasn’t until the late 50s that she received consecutive grants from the Guggenheim to investigate colour photography, a medium that was still in its infancy. Returning to the streets she had captured some two decades previously, her colour photographs captured the same drama of a rapidly changing city with dye-transfer prints. Despite having the slides tragically stolen from her apartment, these colour photographs made up her landmark exhibition at MoMA in 1974, one of the first times the medium was recognised by a major institution. 

Helen Levitt, New York, 1940

Mexico, 1941, Helen Levitt: In the Street at The Photographers’ Gallery

Arriving this autumn at The Photographers’ Gallery in London is a new retrospective of Levitt’s work featuring a selection of her photographs taken in Mexico City, where she travelled in the summer of 1941. Likely influenced by Cartier-Bresson, who had visited the country aged 26, creating a career-defining series of street photography and befriending Langston Hughes along the way, Levitt’s work instead focused on a city undergoing seismic transformation. 

A rapidly urbanising Mexico City created the perfect environment for Levitt to sharpen the political edge to her work. The resulting photographs convey this period of transition through their depiction of rural communities adapting to life in unfamiliar urban surroundings, where the promise of work at newly opened factories brought a sharp juxtaposition between ancient tradition and modern industry.

Helen Levitt: In The Street is on display at The Photographers’ Gallery, London from 15 October

Helen Levitt, New York, 1971

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