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Helen Levitt

American Photographer and Filmmaker

Helen Levitt Photo

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."

Summary of Helen Levitt

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.
Helen Levitt Photo

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.

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