Helen Levitt’s Snapshots of New York Street Life

51MwjvfGRfLOn the 31st of August 1913, American photographer Helen Levitt was born in Brooklyn, New York. Alongside Berenice Abbott and Ruth Orkin, Levitt tried to document the changing life of New York. But whilst Berenice Abbott sought to capture the architecture of New York before the skyscrapers changed the skyline forever, and Ruth Orkin was trying to capture the changing tempo of the City from her apartment window, Levitt focused mainly on the life of the City found in the chalk drawings on the street. In her choice of the subject matter, Levitt was highly influenced by the photography of Henri Cartier-Bresson. After seeing his photographs, she decided to follow in his footsteps and, using a Leica, began to turn her lense on the poorer corners of New York. Levitt worked on several projects whose themes promoted humanist causes. One of them was the 1952 film In The Street, which focused on Levitt’s photographs of children and their connection to poverty and street life.   

During the early 1940’s Helen Levitt made many photographs on the streets of New York. Her photographs were not intended to tell a story or document a social thesis; she worked in poor neighborhoods because there were people there, and a street life that was richly sociable and visually interesting. 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. (Atget Photography).

41D8wTw7vVL._SL500_AA300_For a long time, Levitt photographed in black and white. “That all changed when she received a Guggenheim award in 1959 (renewed the following year), which she used to explore color for the first time. Levitt saw color as “more real,” meaning that it seemed closer to the vividness of contemporary life. Color served to bring out yet another aspect of people and their lived environments, though it never overpowered a photograph’s overall purpose. Thus, one cannot identify a “Levitt palette” – only the artist’s willingness to see a part of life that cannot be conveyed in black and white. Levitt largely shot in color slides, eventually preferring Ektagraphic film for its high speed and versatility. …In 1974, The Museum of Modern Art screened a group of her slides in one of its Projects exhibitions, Helen Levitt in Color (16 September – 20 October). As Levitt herself is quick to point out, this slide show was simply a means to keep the format consistent between production and display phases. It was also highly economical, allowing many pictures to appear in the same space over a relatively short period of time. …Projected slides accentuated her penchant for precision by offering both luminosity and large-scale detail, which Levitt loaded into her images. And though a print underscores intimacy, a projection delivers pictures on a more public level, a feature that reinforces the communal nature of Levitt’s many street photographs. Through slides, the world of the city is transposed to the gallery – not as isolated pictures hanging in frames, but as a series of constantly moving glimpses that flash and disappear, like the brief engagements people have of the sidewalks and subways of New York.” (M. Darsie Alexander, Slideshow)

51Ww2R-cvmLSome 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 neighbourhoods… 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.

Feature Image: Helen Levitt, New York, 1959; Laurence Miller Gallery