Helen Levitt was once regarded as “possibly the most celebrated and least known photographer of her time” by American poet and cultural commentator David Levi Strauss. That was in 1997, when Levitt was 84 years old and the subject of a retrospective at the International Center of Photography in New York, where she was born and where she produced the majority of her work.
One may argue that little has changed in terms of her enigmatic reputation little over two decades later, and 12 years after her death at the age of 95 in 2009.
However, a more radical retrospective of Levitt’s work will premiere at the Photographers’ Gallery in London in a few weeks, following its success at the Arles photography festival in 2019. In the Street, organized by Walter Moser, art historian and chief curator for photography at the Albertina Museum in Vienna, indicates that practically everything you think you know about Helen Levitt is inaccurate.
Moser, who has spent years researching Levitt’s archive and discovering many previously unknown images, says, “For too long, there had been this received notion that Levitt’s photographs are lyrical and poetic, words that are too often applied lazily to the work of female photographers.” “The truth is that Levitt was a member of a highly intellectual cultural and political milieu in New York in the 1930s, and her photography reflected her deep interest in surrealism, cinema, leftwing politics, and new ideas about the role of the body in art that were then emerging.”
In the Street will trace Levitt’s work in photography and cinema through 50 years of restless, inquisitive staring over two floors of the Photographers’ Gallery, which also featured Levitt’s first European show in 1988. For the most part, the environment she viewed was unapologetically local – Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the Bronx, and Spanish Harlem – yet recognizably universal in its capture of children’s play and adults’ social interactions or lonely reveries.
The city streets are alive with youngsters who play with wild abandon on stoops, waste grounds, and derelict buildings, creating a world that is strikingly different from our own.
Levitt, the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants, was born in Brooklyn in 1913. Her passion for photography flourished when, at the age of 18, she dropped out of high school and began working in a commercial portrait photographer’s darkroom. Duncan Forbes encourages us to imagine “a diminutive, determined figure striding out, daringly at first, from Bensonhurst in Brooklyn across the city, transforming herself as a modern woman through her desire to see things differently” in his enlightening catalogue article for her retrospective.
That desire would take a few years to manifest itself in a unique and subtle vision of New York streets that remains an intriguing counterpoint to the more combative images made by the mostly male practitioners who followed in her footsteps in the 1960s and 1970s and effectively defined the term “street photography.” The label “street photographer” barely does Levitt credit, based on the material Moser has acquired from her archives, which includes previously unseen images, contact sheets, and short videos.
Siân Davey, a British documentary photographer whose quietly observational work investigates the psychology of family, self, and community, says, “She doesn’t just charge in like many male street photographers tend to.” “Instead, you notice a distinct quality of contact between her and her subjects in her photographs. There is kindness and a lack of ego, both of which reveal the kind of person she was.”
Despite her calm, lonely presence on the streets of New York, Levitt was not a detached observer, according to Moser: she wanted her subjects to be aware of her presence and respond to it.
“Observing her contact sheets closely reveals that people frequently present themselves in relation to the photographer opposite them,” he explains. “They are willing participants in her photographs, looking at her, smiling at her, flirting with her, or striking a pose for her camera, despite the fact that she frequently crops her photographs to remove these overt acknowledgements of her presence. Her photography, on one level, is really a performance exchange, which gives it a very modern resonance.”
But it was her early exposure to the determinedly leftwing Workers Film and Photo League’s social realism that inspired her early style. She absorbed the idea that photography might be used to effect social change via it, however she never fully committed herself to the communist cause like fellow photographer Lisette Model, who would later be placed on an FBI watchlist.
Levitt subsequently remarked of that time, “I decided I should take pictures of working-class people and contribute to the movements.” “Then I saw [Henri] Cartier-photographs Bresson’s and realized that photography could be an art form – and that inspired me.”
She first encountered Cartier-Bresson in 1935, when she introduced herself at a Film and Photo League discussion and then accompanied him on a day-long shoot despite being scared by his presence. She subsequently said, “He was an intellectual, highly educated man.” “I dropped out of high school.”
Levitt’s involvement with the Film and Photo League also exposed her to the work of avant-garde filmmakers from Europe and Russia, as well as surrealist ideas and radical developments in contemporary dance that elevated “an aesthetics of corporeal transfiguration through movement and drama,” as Forbes puts it.
These opposing formal influences – realist and lyrical – were important to Levitt’s way of seeing, first in her photography and later in her embrace of filmmaking. Her images of youngsters became almost orchestrated in their capture of play motions and glances as her technique developed.
And, while they are often happy, they often have a darker undertone: the kids play fighting games and dress up as gangsters in homage to the movies of the time. In one shot, a toddler recoils as if the adult hovering over him had just slapped him in the face.
“Her work has a hint of darkness to it, but it is never overt,” Brett Rogers, director of the Photographers’ Gallery, adds. “She portrays the street as an almost theatrical landscape where the smallest interactions and gestures are incredibly resonant in her photographs.”
Levitt met another hugely significant photographer, Walker Evans, in 1938, and they became friends. Evans led her to James Agee, a writer with whom she would cooperate on her book, A Way of Seeing, as well as a number of intriguing films, including In the Street and The Quiet One, a documentary about an emotionally disturbed African American youngster.
Despite this, Levitt was a deeply private person who gave only a few interviews during her lifetime. We know she had Ménière’s disease, which causes hearing loss and dizziness, and that she lived alone in her New York apartment with a cat named Binky.
“I have felt wobbly all my life,” she said in her later years, perhaps half-jokingly. Her work appeared to center her, and she went after it with a zealous desire.
“Despite all of my research, her personality remains a mystery to me,” Moser says. “I couldn’t figure her out for the life of me. She was ambitious and knew what she wanted, and she was clearly not bashful, but she hid behind her profession to a certain extent.”
She also used photography to express herself in frequently daring and foresighted ways, such as when she began shooting in color in 1959. When you first see her prints, the deep tonal richness of the reds and greens adds a heightened otherness to her street tableaux, and the results still astound you.
A small girl hiding spider-like beneath the shining green surface of a spotless automobile is a study in childlike reverie in the midst of an adult world that looks even more extravagantly unreal. Unfortunately, most of her color negatives were stolen when her flat was broken into in 1970, prompting her to reshoot the same streets with increased zeal.
The chaotic energy and makeshift nature of New York resonates in her later shots, with the streets becoming less playful and more congested and confrontational, and her images becoming less joyful as the decades pass. “She is always representing people who occupy their own space in their neighbourhoods in her work from the 1930s and 1940s,” Moser says, “but by the late 1960s, and more profoundly in the 1980s, you can see in her images the ways in which the city has become increasingly regulated by consumerism and capitalism.”
Of course, this, too, has a tremendous resonance for our times.”
The title of the exhibition is a reference to her first film, In the Street, which she made in 1948 with Agee and poet and photographer Janice Loeb. It’s a short, quiet flow of photos from the bustling streets of Spanish Harlem in the 1940s that’s highly memorable.
“The streets of the poorer quarters of great cities are above all a theatre and a battleground,” read the first words on the screen. That comes near to describing Helen Levitt’s exceptional body of work’s unique atmosphere, if not its singularly expressive power.
She was, and continues to be, a silent photographic genius of the twentieth century.