Helen Levitt - Biography and Legacy
American Photographer and Filmmaker
Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, New York
New York, New York
Biography of Helen Levitt
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.
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.
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.
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."
The Legacy of Helen Levitt
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.