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Artists Helen Levitt

Helen Levitt

American Photographer and Filmmaker

Movements: Street Photography, Documentary Photography, Surrealism

Born: August 31, 1913 - Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, New York

Died: March 29, 2009 - New York, New York

"All I can say about the work I do is that the aesthetic is in reality itself."

Synopsis

Helen Levitt is known for her spontaneous photographs that blur the lines between the theatrical fantasy and the gritty reality of the working-class neighborhoods of New York City. A pioneer of Street Photography, Levitt's personal and humanizing approach transformed the conventions of the genre. Levitt rejected the idea established by her predecessors that a single photograph could capture the whole truth within a coherent narrative. Rather, her images are open-ended and wondrous, and in this way, allude to a reality beyond what is depicted within the image itself. This translated well into the world of film, where she was also an early pioneer of avant garde filmmaking. Preferring more solitary work, Levitt returned to Street Photography in her later career, embracing color and illustrating that it could be just as powerful an art form as traditional black and white images.

Key Ideas

As a Brooklyn native, Levitt's familiarity with her subjects paired with her discreet shooting style enabled her to capture a spontaneity and intimacy that ultimately shaped the genre of Street Photography itself. Most of Levitt's images and films depict people absorbed in their daily life, seemingly unaware that their photo was being taken. This became an integral aspect to future Street Photographers, who sought to capture un-posed and authentic moments from real life.
Levitt's photographs are not simple depictions of the reality around her. Inspired by the Surrealists who sought to explore the uncanny elements inherent to everyday life, imagined worlds and fantasy are reoccurring themes in her work. Her images continually hint at a world beyond that which is being depicted. The most notable examples of this are her images of children at play, who are immersed in a world of make believe and masquerade that creates a beautiful dichotomy to the harsh reality of their surroundings.
Known as New York's "visual poet laureate," Levitt once remarked that she wanted to capture life just as she had found it. Even as her lyrical images offer a voyeuristic glimpse into the intimate lives of others, they do not seek to judge or stereotype their subjects. Her images humanize her subjects without objectifying them.

Most Important Art

New York (Children with Broken Mirror) (1939)

In this photo, two children hold up a broken mirror as others crouch to examine the shards of glass left behind. Behind the frame a little boy on a bicycle hurdles forward, as if he is about to break through the plane of the frame itself. Absorbed in play, Levitt's presence goes completely unnoticed by her subjects.

Influenced by Surrealism's interest in examining the presence of the uncanny in the everyday, Levitt captures a moment when the ordinary becomes extraordinary. At first glance, the boy on the bicycle could appear as if he is a reflection of someone not present in this image, a framed image propped up by real boys. But upon closer inspection, the viewer realizes that the frame itself is empty, and the boy careening awkwardly towards the viewer is in fact very real and is about to stumble over the frame and spill into the reality of the street scene (and maybe even the shards of glass below). The image is taken just before this happens, just before the mirage of the boy is revealed to in fact be real, playing with the viewer's ability to distinguish between reality and representation. It is this surreal element of the photo that commands the viewers' attention as well as their imagination.

This image was shown at her exhibition titled Photographs of Children at The Museum of Modern Art in 1943. Throughout much of Levitt's career, her images explore the theme of children absorbed in play. Steering away from the stereotype of a female photographer's motherly stance towards children, Levitt's children are neither serene nor innocent. Rather, they are mischievous, clumsy, and engaged in the serious business of play. As if to counter the assumption that her interest in children stemmed from her gender, she would insist with a mischievous smile that she "hated kids." Levitt's images of children are focused on the subjective experience of being an adult voyeur as they are about the children themselves - Levitt was interested in the surrealist element of childhood as primal state of being.

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New York (1939)

Posed on a regal (yet in a state of slight disrepair) stoop of a Brooklyn brownstone, three children wearing masks strike theatrical poses, infusing the image with drama and wonder. However, the youngest child is not quite ready - her mask is not yet secured around her head, and she is caught in the moment of putting it on. Her older siblings in front of her, with their masks already secure, exude a poise and grace well beyond their age.

This image also demonstrates Levitt's remarkable eye for human movement and body expressions. The framing of the image suggests that Levitt was on the sidewalk below the children, and its angled composition suggests that Levitt took this as she was walking by. This is an important aspect of Street Photography that was focused on depicting life "as it really was," and shunned posed images as less authentic as a result. Yet, this image has a theatrical quality to it that is at odds with the supposed objectivity of both street and documentary photography. In this tension between posed and authentic, Levitt's eye as a photographer is revealed. Uninterested in maintaining an "objective" or neutral view of the world, Levitt instead chose to capture a subjective truth in which there was always a dance between what was real and what was imagined. For instance, the dual narratives of the metaphorical significance of this image (adulthood as a social costume being mimicked by the children) and the reality that they are simply preparing to go trick-or-treating for Halloween is what captivates and maintains the interest of the viewer. This image was a part of her 1943 MoMA exhibition Photographs of Children, and was later renamed Three Kids on a Stoop.

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New York (1940)

A little girl bathed in a swath of sunlight strikes a pose reminiscent of an awkward Flamenco dancer, as her companion appears to have been captured in the moment right before a swirl himself. The seriousness of the girl's facial expression is balanced by the levity of the scene of two small children dancing gleefully in the street. Taken during the intense racial segregation and a rampant fear of black men in the 1940s, Levitt makes an implicit social statement against racial division. In this moment, the two children are free from society's constraints dictating their separation from one another. The genius of this photograph rests in the swath of light that bathes the white little girl, and leaves the black boy in shadow - a subtle evocation of the very different social realities each will face.

Throughout Levitt's career she was dedicated to portraying social and racial inequalities. Her status as an immigrant woman growing up in Brooklyn made her particularly attuned to social injustice. The theme of such injustice would be further explored when Levitt changed to film as well as in her later color photographs. In many ways, this image can be read as a precursor to the film she and acclaimed author James Agee would write and Levitt, alongside Janice Loeb, would later be a cinematographer for the film titled The Quiet One (1948), which is about an emotionally troubled black boy in New York City, as well as to her short film about life in Spanish Harlem titled, In The Street (1953). This photograph ultimately projects an image of human existence that unsentimentally challenges misconceptions about race.

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New York (1940)

In this image, the boy in the center holds his hand confidently to his chest, fingertips inside his vest. He stares intensely at the viewer, his lips open, as if he is in the midst of a grand soliloquy. This boisterous and energetic proclamation captures the mischievous side of childhood. These boys are no angels, and yet their theatrical poses evoke a celebratory and joyous tone - as if even their misdeeds deserve acclaim. The children are dignified, with unabashed bravado, taking the world for their stage. Also included in her MoMA exhibition Photographs of Children, this posed photograph is an exception among Levitt's work, as she usually tried to take photographs unnoticed. Instead, here, the boys directly engage the viewer, enticing us to wonder exactly what the boy in the center was saying.

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New York (Bubbles) (1945)

In this well-known image, four girls, walking down a city sidewalk, turn to look at soap bubbles drifting up over the street. On the other side of the street, a brick wall extends into the distance where hazy city buildings are visible. The divide between imagination and reality is embodied by the edge of the sidewalk, which runs as a sharp diagonal line through the composition, dividing the world occupied by the girls and the world of imagination evoked by the delicately floating bubbles that have captured their attention..

The photograph famously conveys the wonder and curiosity of childhood. The worn surface of the street, and the well-worn shoes and clothing of the children communicate working-class poverty, and the street extending into the distance suggests the empty future ahead. Because the soap bubbles have no definable source, they are mysterious, and their bright frailty is accentuated against the dark stone expresses the transitory nature of the moment and of childhood itself. When asked to describe this image later in her life, Levitt said the image was about, "just what you see... If it were easy to talk about, I'd be a writer. Since I'm inarticulate, I express myself with images."

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In the Street (1952)

Children rule the streets in this film, as the sequences jump between shots of them playing, laughing, and crying to scenes of adults absorbed in their own lives. The juxtaposition between adults and children heightens both the spontaneous joy and cruelty of childhood. Throughout the film, the adults appear seemingly unaware of the fantastical reality the children have crafted for themselves. The scenes that comprise this 16 minute film range from shots of kids in Halloween costumes, donning skeleton masks made of paper, kids waging a battle with fistfuls of flour, which splash across the black and white film like magic, to adults peacefully walking their dogs or conversing with their neighbors. Refusing a linear, or even singular, narrative in the film, Helen Levitt's cinematography is a moving extension of the spontaneous aesthetic she mastered in her still images. The film jumps between scenes and places seemingly at random, but always with a lyrical flow. Just as soon as one scene is established, the film jumps to another scene entirely.

In the introduction to this film a text reads, "The streets of the poor quarters of great cities are, above all, a theater and a battleground. There, unaware and unnoticed, every human being is a poet, a masker, a warrior, a dancer: and in his innocent artistry he projects, against the turmoil of the street, an image of human existence. The attempt in this short film is to capture this image." This film was scripted by writer James Agee and shot by Helen Levitt with the help of friend and fellow artist Janice Loeb. Shot mostly in Harlem and the Lower East Side, the film's unique composition echoes Agee's sentiment that the streets are both a theater as well as a battleground.

The legacy of documentary filmmaking at the time typically imposed a singular and heroic narrative that both Levitt and Agee saw as reducing the raw energy and complexity of everyday life. While the film was received as a documentary, both Agee and Levitt resisted that category in both Agee's script as well as in Levitt's shooting of it. As the film studies scholar Juan Antonio Suarez says of the film, it "eschews the stereotyping and sentimentalizing typical of much 1930s documentary work, where characters are viewed in terms of wider social groups, as stand-ins." It is this aspect of the film that helped earn it critical acclaim for its humanizing approach, and ultimately cemented its place at the forefront of avant garde cinema in the 1950s.

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New York (1959)

In this photograph, the brightly colored background of torn billboards announcing various boxing bouts frames an otherwise drab and vacant lot. A man sits in front of his empty cart, talking to a small child, while two other men just behind them talk. The dirty heaps of used clothing imply the hard work of their daily lives, and also create a barrier between the street and the vacant lot, so that the space seems to belong to the men.

This image was made when Levitt received a highly regarded grant from the Guggenheim Foundation to record scenes from the poor and working class neighborhoods of New York City in color. It is one of eight surviving images from this time period because in 1970 her color negatives and prints from this project were stolen from her apartment, never to resurface.

Color photography was in its early stages during this time, and had been previously looked down upon by serious photographers - Walker Evans declared that color photography was "vulgar." Despite this, or perhaps because of this, Helen Levitt was one of the first art photographers to take it seriously and explore its possibilities. In this image, Levitt uses color to highlight both the poverty as well as the humanity of the scene - the brightly pops of color contrast starkly with the dingy blankets and detritus, and even the people in the abandoned lot. All of this merely sets the stage for what really interested her: the humanity and familiarity between people.

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New York (1971)

In this image, an African American woman talks to an African American man pushing his hot dog cart, named "House of Weenies," down a littered city street. Behind them, a BBQ sign hangs over the entrance of shuttered building, and a billboard advertises the radio show "Yankee Baseball and Bill White." The punches of color guide one's eye through the composition, drawing attention not just to the people in the middle of conversing, but also to the background billboards that provides a context and location to the subjects.

The decaying urban landscape conveys the historical weight of poverty, but a sense of wry humor prevails in the interaction between the woman who seems quite sure of whatever she's talking about, staring ahead as she walks, and the man who turns to look at her askance. His quizzical look speaks to Levitt's proclivity towards humor and wit. The man's pristine white coat and his hot dog cart with its two signs suggest that he takes pride in ownership. Food carts were a relatively new invention and something that would have been unique to major cities. This image stands in remarkable contrast to her earlier photographs, despite the similar subject matter for both its brilliant full color as well as the modernity represented by the billboards and the hot dog cart. The New York of 1971 was dramatically different than the New York of the 1940s, when Levitt first began photographing. The broad scope of time in which Levitt worked revealed both the constant change of the 21st century but also an enduring and timeless subjectivity about the nature of human life.

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New York (1980)

In this photograph, a girl crouches in the gutter of a street with legs akimbo, with her head lowered to her right knee. The brilliant Kelly green of the car directly behind the girl and the turquoise beetle create a lyrical balance of color, for which Levitt's color images were known. The cuff of the girl's shirt matches the white wall of the tire, which leads up to the curved green of the wheel well and the bright color of the car, then to the blue of the Beetle and a patch of blue wall above two trash cans in the right background. The color is so choreographed that the setting seems almost deliberately composed, which further emphasizes the mystery of the girl's activity.

Most of Levitt's photos focus on human movement, as a telling gesture expresses the subject's personality, but in her color work, she often focused on moments of disconnection. We cannot see the girl's face, and as a result of this, her emotional state is hidden from us and her awkward positioning suggests she is looking for something that is equally hidden from her. An ordinary setting thus becomes ambiguous.

Encompassing both the spontaneity as well as the Surrealist elements for which her work was known, this color image explains why Levitt was known as "New York's visual poet Laureate." The wonder and strangeness of the image captivates and invites the viewer to imagine their own narrative for the image. Levitt's expansive career was full of starts and stops, switching from black and white photography to film and then back to photography in order to experiment with color film. However, the strength of her images withstands the test of time, as her later work remains as fascinating and fresh as her earliest photographs. This speaks to Levitt's expansive legacy and her unique vision of the world around her.

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Biography

Childhood

Helen Levitt was born in Brooklyn's Bensonhurst neighborhood to a Russian-Jewish immigrant family in 1913. She had two brothers and was the middle child. Her father Sam ran a wholesale knit goods store and her mother May was a bookkeeper. As a child, Levitt studied ballet even though she was born with Meniere's syndrome, an inner-ear disease that causes dizziness and tinnitus, as she said in later years, "I have felt wobbly all my life." She loved dance, music, and going to the movies, being particularly fond of the poignant slapstick of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Her love of these art forms gave her a deep appreciation of human movement and the telling gesture. Her immigrant background and love of humor and spontaneity would later come to define her approach to both photography and filmmaking.

Helen Levitt Biography Continues

Early Training and work

As a teenager, Levitt wanted to be an artist but felt she "could not draw well." In 1931, finding high school boring because, as she states, "too many other things in life distracted me," she dropped out her senior year. She then went to work for a commercial photographer that her mother knew in the Bronx. She worked in the darkroom printing and developing. From her six dollar a week salary, she saved up enough money to buy a used Voigtlander camera, and began taking black and white photographs of her mother's friends.

Never receiving a formal education, she educated herself by attending exhibitions and reading publications on the work of Ben Shahn and Henri Cartier-Bresson. She was influenced by the grittiness of Shahn's street photographs, and Cartier-Bresson made her realize that, as she said, "I decided I should take pictures of working class people and contribute to the movements... And then I saw pictures of Cartier-Bresson, and realized that photography could be an art - and that made me ambitious." She met Cartier-Bresson at a talk he gave in 1935 at the Film and Photo League, and subsequently went with him on a daylong photo shoot at the Bronx wharves. She learned from him the importance of luck, planning, and a sense of composition. Levitt later remarked on how intimidated she was to meet Cartier-Bresson. She describes that when she met him she, "didn't say a word to him. He was such an intellectual, highly educated. I was a high school dropout..." Unlike Cartier-Bresson, or her other major influence, Walker Evans, Levitt lacked the class, gender, and educational privileges that they had been afforded. Despite this, or perhaps because of this, her viewpoint and background richly informed her work.

To further develop her eye, she also frequented art galleries and museums where she noted that she "looked at paintings for composition." Working as a part-time art teacher in a Spanish Harlem public school, she began noticing the chalk drawings that neighborhood children made on the sidewalks, steps, and walls. Thinking that they should be documented, she began photographing, first, the drawings, then, the children making them, and then the adults in the neighborhood. Levitt described this now forgotten moment of stoop-life in New York that, this time "was before television and air-conditioning. People would be outside, and if you just waited long enough they forgot about you." Her personality, as described later by the writer, Francine Prose, was an utterly "individual mixture of toughness, certitude, curiosity, and glee," making her an ideal street photographer.

Mature Period

In 1938, wanting to share her street photos, she contacted Walker Evans, saying "I went to see him "the way kids do, and got to be friends with him." At the same meeting, she met the writer James Agee. Her friendships with the two men were among the most significant of her career. Evans taught her how to use a winkelsucher, a right angle viewfinder that made it possible to take photos unnoticed, and asked her to work with him in making the prints for his American Photographs exhibition. To this day, she remains famous for being a master printer of Evan's photographs. She also began working her own images for her project, A Way of Seeing, a book that included her photographs and Agee's essay. Her photographs appeared in a 1939 issue of Fortune and, the following year, were shown in the inaugural exhibition of the photography department at the Museum of Modern Art.

The 1940s provided Levitt with new creative possibilities. Though she was a reluctant traveler, Levitt went with Agee's wife to Mexico in 1941. The trip was the only time she traveled outside the United States, and while there she took photographs of the urban poor of Mexico City. Upon her return, she assisted Evans who was shooting his Subway series. In 1943 she had her first solo exhibition, Helen Levitt: Photographs Of Children, curated by Edward Steichen at the Museum of Modern Art.

Agee introduced her to poker, and soon she had established a poker club, holding weekly sessions of low stakes poker at her apartment. The club initially included Agee, Evans, and other noted photographers and writers. She and Agee had begun collaborating on The Quiet One, released in 1948, a documentary that told the story of an emotionally disturbed African American boy. It was notable not just for its beautiful cinematography, but also for its unflinching look at the racial injustices of American society. The film, for which she was both cinematographer and writer, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary, and she, along with the painter Janice Loeb and the director Sydney Meyer, was nominated for an Academy Award for screen writing. Loeb, who was then married to Levitt's brother, introduced Levitt to Luis Buñuel, the acclaimed Surrealist film director who in the 1940s was making American propaganda films. He hired Levitt as a film editor, and for the next decade or so of her career, she began working primarily in film.

She bought a simple 16mm camera so that she could hold it at waist level and film unnoticed and began working on In the Street (1953), her short documentary that focused on street life in Spanish Harlem. The project developed directly out of an aborted book with James Agee, A Way of Seeing (which was not published until 1965). It was conceived as the urban counterpart of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), the book Agee published with Walker Evans. In the 1946 introduction, Agee wrote that Levitt's photographs were not "intended to be social or psychological document(s)," but rather could "best be described as lyrical photographs." Her documentary, In the Street, appeared in 1953, and was also critically acclaimed. During this time in the 1940s, perhaps due to her intense focus on work, she had several bouts of pneumonia that resulted in scarred lungs and forced her to slow down and recover.

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Later Period

Working in film full-time, she did not return to photography until 1959. Her photography career picked up pace in the 1970s, when her images of street life reclaimed the interest of the public and art critics. She pioneered the use of color that brought a new vitality to her sophisticated humor and the spontaneity that she infused in her depictions of urban life. She was spurred by her interest in color photography, saying in her characteristic low-key manner, "I wanted to try stuff with color."

She was awarded Guggenheim Foundation grants in 1959 and 1960 to explore color photography, and her color prints were published in Harper's Bazaar, Time, Fortune, and in newspapers like the New York Post. She also continued working in film, as a cinematographer, a producer, an assistant director, and an editor for films like The Savage Eye (1960) and The Balcony (1963). The Ford Foundation in 1964 awarded her a grant to continue her work in documentary film, though in the following decade, she noted, "It was too difficult to try to make a film. You had to get people to work with you, you can't work alone."

In 1970 her apartment was burglarized and most of her color negatives were stolen. Trying to make up for the work she had lost, she photographed with renewed fervor. Her work was shown in a 1974 slide show at the Museum of Modern Art. This exhibition was one of the first shows of color photography, and the first time a museum had presented photography in a slide show format.

In the early 1990s sciatica made it difficult for her to make color prints, so she gave up color photography. Professing to not mind, she said, "Whatever roll of film I have, that's what I'll shoot." She also gave up her heavy Leica and began using a small automatic Contax camera. Changes in New York City life also affected her work, as she said, "I go where there's a lot of activity. Children used to be outside. Now the streets are empty. People are indoors looking at television or something." In 1991 the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art held the first retrospective of her work. And in 1997, the book Helen Levitt: Mexico City was published.

Throughout her life Levitt remained a very private person and gave few interviews, allowing only one interviewer into her apartment, a 4th floor walkup. On the wall only a photograph of a mother gorilla with her baby that she had cut from a magazine was displayed. When asked why none of her own images were displayed, she said, "I know what they look like. I don't want to look at them all the time." She had marked boxes containing her photos, one of which was labeled "nothing good". Another box was labeled "Here and There," which later became the title of her monograph published in 2004.

In 2009, she died peacefully at home in her New York apartment where she had lived for decades with her longtime companion, a big yellow cat named Binky. Her friend and the director of photography at Columbia University, Thomas Roma said "she never had a moment where she wasn't completely engaged, even right up until the end."

Legacy

In both her photographs as well as her films, Levitt created objects of fascination drawn from the seemingly mundane reality of everyday life. Transforming scenes and subjects into performances that flirted with the surreal, the intimate moments captured in her work spoke to the wonders of the human condition. For this reason, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's senior curator of photography, Sandra Phillips, said that Levitt "was one of the first American photographers to identify street photography as potentially an art form."

Her street photography as well as her pioneering use of color photography influenced the photographers Lee Friedlander, Mary Ellen Mark, Alex Prager, and Joseph Szabo, among others. Levitt's film In the Street has been equally influential in the development of the documentary movement, Cinéma vérité, and continues to exert an influence, both upon a new generation of avant-garde filmmakers like Alexandra Cuesta as well as Hollywood filmmakers like Todd Haynes. Dubbed the "unofficial visual poet laureate of New York City," Levitt became well known to the public in 2001 when Ken Burns featured her photographs in his PBS documentary series, New York, and even Sesame Street with its setting of Spanish Harlem takes inspiration from her images of street life.

Quotes

"I never intend to make statements in my pictures. People say, 'What does this or that mean?' I don't have a good answer for them. You see what you see."
Helen Levitt
"It was luck. Luck, as James Agee said in an essay, is very important in this kind of stuff."
Helen Levitt
"If it were easy to talk about, I'd be a writer. Since I'm inarticulate, I express myself with images."
Helen Levitt
"If I could say that, I wouldn't have to take pictures."
Helen Levitt
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