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

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

Biography of Helen Levitt

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.

Important Art by Helen Levitt

New York (Children with Broken Mirror) (1939)

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.

New York (1939)

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.

New York (1940)

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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Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Allison Harbin

"Helen Levitt Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Allison Harbin
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First published on 19 Jun 2017. Updated and modified regularly
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