Helen Levitt (1913 – 2009)
Born in Brooklyn in 1913 to Russian Jewish immigrants, Levitt left high school in her final year to learn darkroom techniques with a commercial photographer in the Bronx in 1931, earning $6.00 a week for 4 years. Later working as a part-time art teacher in Spanish Harlem in 1936, she bought a second hand 35-millimeter Leica camera and began photographing the children’s chalk street drawings. She started documenting children at play around her in Brooklyn, the Lower East Side, Harlem and the Bronx, in candid, quirky and joyous compositions, full of humour and spontaneity. She often used a winkelsucher, or right angle viewfinder, which allowed her to photograph unnoticed.
She taught herself about art history and befriended Henri Cartier-Bresson and Walker Evans, with whom she later shared a darkroom, making master prints and photographing the subways. The images she sold to magazines like Fortune soon garnered attention and Levitt was offered her first exhibition, ‘Photographs of Children’ at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1943.
Throughout the 50s, Levitt directed and edited 16 mm films, and worked as an editor with director Luis Bunuel for the Office of War Information. She also collaborated with James Agee on the Oscar-nominated film ‘The Quiet One’ (1948) about a disadvantaged young boy. Her humanistic style and framing contributed to the authentic feel of the film and its predecessor ‘In the Street’, shot in 1945/6.
She received a Guggenheim fellowship in 1959 and moved into colour photography. She collaborated with Agee on a book about New York, ‘A Way of Seeing’, published in 1965.
Levitt was a gifted visual storyteller, and she captured the relationships, energy and theatre of the streets of New York for over seventy years. Her influence can be seen in the work of other street photographers, such as Mary Ellen Mark, Diane Arbus and Susan Meiselas.
Galarie Thomas Zander and Helen Levitt’s estate holds the copyright for her images.
By Paula Vellet