Helen Levitt captured the lyrical spirit of a New York that no longer exists.
Attracted to the poorer areas of the city, particularly the Lower East Side and Spanish Harlem, Levitt saw the street of these neighborhoods as the living room of New York, where children played, neighbors chatted, and where people from all walks of life came together for brief but special moments.
“It was a very good neighborhood for taking pictures in those days because that was before television. There was a lot happening. And then the older people would sometimes be sitting out on the stoops because of the heat. They didn’t have air conditioning in those days. It was, don’t forget, in the late ’30s. So those neighborhoods were very active.” – Helen Levitt
Levitt (1913-2009) grew up in Bensonhurt, Brooklyn and began photographing at the age of 18. Inspired by the work of French photographer, Henri-Cartier Bresson, they became friends in 1935 and she purchased a 35mm Leica Camera with a 50mm lens.
“I had attached to my camera — I had a little device that fit on the Leica camera that they called a winkelsucher, which meant that you could look one way and take the picture the other. You could turn your camera sideways.” – Helen Levitt
Levitt began by photographing children playing in the streets, which was eventually released as a book in 1987 under the title, In The Street: Chalk Drawings and Messages. The portfolio showed photographs of children making chalk drawings.
In 1938, she showed this work to Walker Evans. They became friends and she would occasionally accompany him on his walks around the city. “I went to see him, the way kids do, and got to be friends with him.” James Mellow, in his biography of Walker Evans, wrote that the only photographers Evans “felt had something original to say were Cartier-Bresson, Helen Levitt and himself.”
Levitt focused on ordinary people, and she captured them with a kind and caring lens. Her work showed the importance of daily street life to the health and spirit of the city. As Jane Jacobs wrote, “Lowly, unpurposeful, and random as they appear, sidewalk contacts are the small change from which a city’s wealth of public life must grow,” and this spirit was at the heart of Levitt’s work.
Growing up in an immigrant family, Levitt was very aware of social and racial inequality and injustices around the city. By capturing children and streets full of diverse people, she showed how the environment of New York in the 30s and 40s could help break down these injustices and bring people together. Her photographs show children from all backgrounds playing together, unaware of the unfair, tough, and divided world around them.
Levitt eventually left photography and went into filmmaking, but returned to street photography to become one of the photographers at the forefront of the shift to color photography, which had previously not been seen as a viable art form.
“Levitt’s pictures report no unusual happenings; most of them show the games of children, the errands and conversations of the middle-aged, and the observant waiting of the old. What is remarkable about the photographs is that these immemorially routine acts of life, practiced everywhere and always, are revealed as being full of grace, drama, humor, pathos, and surprise, and also that they are filled with the qualities of art, as though the street were a stage, and its people were all actors and actresses, mimes, orators, and dancers.
Some might look at these photographs today, and, recognizing the high art in them, wonder what has happened to the quality of common life. The question suggests that Levitt’s pictures are an objective record of how things were in New York’s neighborhoods in the 1940’s.
This is one possible explanation. Perhaps the children have forgotten how to pretend with style, and the women how to gossip and console, and the old how to oversee. Alternatively, perhaps the world that these pictures document never existed at all, except in the private vision of Helen Levitt, whose sense of the truth discovered those thin slices of fact that, laid together, create fantasy.”
From Looking at Photographs by John Szarkowski
Looking back on Levitt’s work, the stark differences to the New York of today become even more apparent. Children play on the streets much less frequently, people walk and stare at their cellphones, ears are covered with chunky headphones. That spirit of interaction is going away, and her photographs show us why we need to fight to keep what’s left of the old spirit around.
“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.” – Helen Levitt
Quotes from 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
“I never had a ‘project.’ I would go out and shoot, follow my eyes—what they noticed, I tried to capture with my camera, for others to see.” – Helen Levitt
“It would be mistaken to suppose that any of the best photography is come at by intellection; it is like all art, essentially the result of an intuitive process, drawing on all that the artist is rather than on anything he thinks, far less theorizes about.” – Helen Levitt
“All I can say about the work I try to do is that the aesthetic is in reality itself.” – Helen Levitt
“A lot of my early pictures are, I think, quite funny. And these days I tend to look for comedy more and more.” – Helen Levitt
More Photographs from Helen Levitt