Helen Levitt

Helen Levitt (August 31, 1913 – March 29, 2009)[1][2] was an American photographer and cinematographer. She was particularly noted for her street photography around New York City. David Levi Strauss described her as "the most celebrated and least known photographer of her time."[3]

Helen Levitt
Self portrait of Helen Levitt.jpg
1963
BornAugust 31, 1913 (1913-08-31)
Brooklyn, New York, U.S.
DiedMarch 29, 2009 (2009-03-30) (aged 95)
New York City, U.S.
Known forPhotography
Cover art for Levitt's book Crosstown (2002).
Short Film, In the Street (1948).
Cover art for Levitt's book Slide Show (2005).

A retrospective exhibition of Levitt's work, In the Street, is showing at The Photographers' Gallery in London from October 2021 to February 2022.[4]

Early life and educationEdit

Levitt was born in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, New York, the daughter of May (Kane), and Sam Levitt.[5] Her father and maternal grandparents were Russian Jewish immigrants.[6] She went to New Utrecht High School but dropped out in 1931.[7]

Work in photographyEdit

She began taking photography when she was eighteen[8] and in 1931 she learned how to develop photos in the darkroom when she began working for J. Florian Mitchell, a commercial portrait photographer in the Bronx.[9][10] She also attended many classes and events hosted by Manhattan Film and Photography League.[8] This was also around the time she was exposed to the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson at the Julien Levy Gallery,[11][12] who she was also able to meet through the league.[8] His work became a major influence for her photography as it inspired her to change from her current more journalistic and commercial approach to photography to a more personal one.[13]

In 1936, she purchased a Leica camera (a 35 mm range-finder camera). [14] In While teaching art classes to children in 1937 for the New York City's Federal Art Project,[15] Levitt became intrigued with the transitory chalk drawings that were part of the New York children's street culture of the time.[16][17] She began to photograph these chalk drawings, as well as the children who made them for her own creative assignment with the Federal Art Project. were ultimately published in 1987 as In The Street: chalk drawings and messages, New York City 1938–1948.[8][18]

She continued taking more street photographs mainly in East Harlem but also in the Garment District and on the Lower East Side, all in Manhattan.[19] During the 1930s to 1940s, the lack of air conditioning meant people were outside more, which invested her in street photography.[20] Her work was first published in Fortune magazine's July 1939 issue.[21] The new photography section of the Museum of Modern Art, New York included Levitt's work in its inaugural exhibition in July 1939.[22] In 1941, she visted Mexico City with author James Agee and took photos of the area.[23] In 1943, Nancy Newhall curated her first solo exhibition "Helen Levitt: Photographs of Children".[24]

In 1959 and 1960, she received two grants from the Guggenheim Foundation for her pioneering work in color photography.[25] In 1965 she published her first major collection, A Way of Seeing.[26] Much of her work in color from 1959 to 1960 was stolen in a 1970 burglary of her East 12th Street apartment. The remaining photos, and others taken in the following years, can be seen in the 2005 book Slide Show: The Color Photographs of Helen Levitt.[27] A second solo exhibit, Projects: Helen Levitt in Color, was held at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1974.[28] Her next major shows were in the 1960s; Amanda Hopkinson suggests that this second wave of recognition was related to the feminist rediscovery of women's creative achievements.[22] In 1976, she was a Photography Fellow of the National Endowment for the Arts.[29]

Levitt lived in New York City and remained active as a photographer for nearly 70 years. However, she expressed lament at the change of New York City scenery:

"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."[25]

Work in film makingEdit

In the late 1940s, Levitt made two documentary films with Janice Loeb and James Agee: In the Street (1948) and The Quiet One (1948). Levitt, along with Loeb and Sidney Meyers, received an Academy Award nomination for The Quiet One.[30] Levitt was active in film making for nearly 25 years; her final film credit is as an editor for John Cohen's documentary The End of an Old Song (1972).[31] Levitt's other film credits include the cinematography on The Savage Eye (1960),[32] which was produced by Ben Maddow, Meyers, and Joseph Strick, and also as an assistant director for Strick and Maddow's film version of Genet's play The Balcony (1963). In her 1991 biographical essay, Maria Hambourg wrote that Levitt "has all but disinherited this part of her work."[18] In 2012 Deane Williams published a comprehensive overview of Levitt's films in Senses of Cinema.[33]

Style and themesEdit

Helen Levitt was most well known and celebrated for her work taking pictures of children playing in the streets. She also focused her work in areas of Harlem and the Lower East side with the subjects of her work many of which were minorities.[34] There is a constant motif of children playing games in her work. [35] She stepped away from the normal practice set by other established photographers at the time of giving a journalistic depiction of suffering. She instead chose to show the world from the perspective of her children from taking pictures of their chalk art. She usually positions the camera and styles the photo in a way that gives the focus of her photography power.[36] Her choice to display children playing in the street and explore street photography, fights against what was going on at the time. Legislation being passed in New York at the time was limiting many of the working classes access to these public spaces. Laws were passed that directly targeted these communities in an attempt to control them. New bans on noise targeted working class and minority communities.[36] There was a movement to also try to keep children from playing on the street believing it is unsafe for them out there. Instead encouraging safe new areas that were usually built more in upper and middle class areas. Helen Levitt instead exploring the narrative of those who lived in these areas and played in these streets was a way further to empower the subjects of her photos.[36]

Personal life and deathEdit

She had to give up making her own prints in the 1990s due to sciatica, which also made standing and carrying her Leica difficult, causing her to switch to a small, automatic Contax.[37] She was born with Ménière's syndrome, an inner-ear disorder that caused her to "[feel] wobbly all [her] life." She also had a near-fatal case of pneumonia in the 1950s.[1] Levitt lived a personal and quiet life. She seldom gave interviews and was generally very introverted. She never married, living alone with her yellow tabby Blinky.[20] Levitt died in her sleep on March 29, 2009, at the age of 95.[1]

ExhibitionsEdit

Solo exhibitionsEdit

Group exhibitionsEdit

  • Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1939[22]

PublicationsEdit

  • Levitt, Helen; Agee, James (1989) [1965]. A Way of Seeing: Third Edition. Duke University Press. ISBN 978-0-8223-1005-1.
  • Levitt, Helen; Coles, Robert (1987). In the Street: Chalk Drawings and Messages, New York City, 1938-1948. Duke University Press. ISBN 0-8223-0771-5.
  • Levitt, Helen; Hambourg, Maria Morris; Phillips, Sandra S. (1991). Phillips, Sandra S. (ed.). Helen Levitt. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. ISBN 0-918471-22-2.
  • Levitt, Helen; Oles, James (1997). Helen Levitt: Mexico City. W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0-393-04549-8.
  • Levitt, Helen; Prose, Francine (2001). Crosstown. powerHouse Books. ISBN 1-57687-103-7.
  • Levitt, Helen; Gopnik, Adam (2004). Here and There. powerHouse Books. ISBN 1-57687-165-7.
  • Levitt, Helen; Szarkowski, John (2005). Slide Show: The Color Photographs of Helen Levitt. powerHouse Books. ISBN 978-1-57687-252-9.
  • Levitt, Helen; Evans, Walker (2008). Helen Levitt. powerHouse Books. ISBN 978-1-57687-429-5.
  • Levitt, Helen; Trachtenberg, Alan; Chevrier, Jean-François; Ribalta, Jorge (2010). Helen Levitt: Lírica Urbana. La Fabrica Editorial. ISBN 978-84-92841-24-0.
  • Levitt, Helen (2017). One, two, three, more. Introduction by Geoff Dyer. Brooklyn: PowerHouse.
  • Levitt, Helen (2017). Manhattan Transit: The Subway Photographs of Helen Levitt. Introduction by David Campany. Galerie Thomas Zander and Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König. ISBN 978-3-96098-122-0.

FilmsEdit

AwardsEdit

ReferencesEdit

  1. ^ a b c Loke, Margaret (March 30, 2009). "Helen Levitt, Who Froze New York Street Life on Film, Is Dead at 95". The New York Times. Archived from the original on April 16, 2009. Retrieved March 30, 2009.
  2. ^ Rourke, Mary (April 1, 2009). "Helen Levitt dies at 95; New York street photographer of poignant dramas". Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on April 3, 2009. Retrieved April 1, 2009.
  3. ^ O'Hagan, Sean (October 2, 2021). "Helen Levitt: the most celebrated, least known photographer of her time". The Guardian. Archived from the original on December 3, 2021. Retrieved December 4, 2021.
  4. ^ a b "Meet the real Helen Levitt, New York's most intimate chronicler". The Guardian. 2 October 2021. Archived from the original on 2021-10-16. Retrieved 2021-10-16.
  5. ^ Loke, Margarett (2009-03-30). "Helen Levitt, Who Froze New York Street Life on Film, Is Dead at 95". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Archived from the original on 2021-12-04. Retrieved 2021-12-04.
  6. ^ "Helen Levitt". Family Search. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Archived from the original on 2021-12-05. Retrieved 2020-04-04.
  7. ^ Grand, Elizabeth (2009). "Helen Levitt (1913–2009) and the Camera". American Art. 23 (3): 98–102. doi:10.1086/649790. S2CID 192186702. Archived from the original on 2021-12-04. Retrieved 2021-12-04 – via University of Chicago Press Journals.
  8. ^ a b c d Graves, Lauren (2021). "Inheritors of the Street: Helen Levitt Photographs Children's Chalk Drawings". Buildings & Landscapes: Journal of the Vernacular Architecture Forum. 28 (1): 58–83. doi:10.5749/buildland.28.1.0058. ISSN 1936-0886. JSTOR 10.5749/buildland.28.1.0058. S2CID 238008765. Archived from the original on 2021-12-04. Retrieved 2021-12-04.
  9. ^ "Levitt, Helen (1913–) | Encyclopedia.com". www.encyclopedia.com. Archived from the original on 2021-03-29. Retrieved 2019-07-05.
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  12. ^ "Helen Levitt". Smithsonian American Art Museum. Archived from the original on 2021-03-22. Retrieved 2019-07-05.
  13. ^ "Museum of Contemporary Photography". www.mocp.org. Archived from the original on 2021-12-04. Retrieved 2021-12-04.
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  16. ^ "Graffiti: Chalk Drawing of Figure with Double Pupils, New York City (ca. 1940)". Metropolitan Museum of Art. Archived from the original on 2021-03-22. Retrieved 2019-07-05.
  17. ^ "Museum of Contemporary Photography". www.mocp.org. Archived from the original on 2021-03-22. Retrieved 2019-07-05.
  18. ^ a b Hambourg, Maria Morris (1991). "Helen Levitt: A Life in Part". In Phillips, Sandra S. (ed.). Helen Levitt. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. pp. 45–63. ISBN 0-918471-22-2.
  19. ^ Silverman, Rena (January 16, 2019). "Helen Levitt's Street Photos Blend the Poetic With the Political". The New York Times. Archived from the original on March 22, 2021. Retrieved July 5, 2019.
  20. ^ a b "Helen Levitt". The Telegraph. 23 April 2009. Archived from the original on 17 March 2017. Retrieved March 11, 2017.
  21. ^ Gand, Elizabeth (September 1, 2009). "Helen Levitt (1913–2009) and the Camera". American Art. 23 (3): 98–102. doi:10.1086/649790. S2CID 192186702.
  22. ^ a b c Hopkinson, Amanda (April 3, 2009). "Obituary - Helen Levitt: Award-winning New York photographer noted for street scenes and social realism". The Guardian. Archived from the original on March 12, 2017. Retrieved December 11, 2016.
  23. ^ "Museum of Contemporary Photography". www.mocp.org. Archived from the original on 2021-12-04. Retrieved 2021-12-05.
  24. ^ "Helen Levitt". International Center of Photography. 2018-01-31. Archived from the original on 2021-03-22. Retrieved 2021-12-05.
  25. ^ a b Loke, Margarett (2009-03-30). "Helen Levitt, Who Captured New York Street Life, Dies at 95". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Archived from the original on 2017-03-13. Retrieved 2017-03-11.
  26. ^ Levitt, Helen (1989). A Way of Seeing: Third Edition. Duke University Press. ISBN 978-0-8223-1005-1.
  27. ^ Levitt, Helen (2005). Slide Show: The Color Photographs of Helen Levitt. powerHouse Books. ISBN 978-1-57687-252-9.
  28. ^ a b "Projects: Helen Levitt in Color". Archived from the original on 2021-03-22. Retrieved 2020-03-14.
  29. ^ "Helen Levitt". International Center of Photography. 2017-02-04. Archived from the original on 2021-03-22. Retrieved 2017-03-11.
  30. ^ "The 21st Academy Awards | 1949". Oscars.org | Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Archived from the original on 2011-07-06. Retrieved 2021-12-05.
  31. ^ Mathews, Scott (2008-08-06). "John Cohen in Eastern Kentucky: Documentary Expression and the Image of Roscoe Halcomb During the Folk Revival". Southern Spaces. Archived from the original on 2012-10-25. Retrieved 2010-08-12.
  32. ^ Jackson, Benjamin T. (Summer 1960). "The Savage Eye". Film Quarterly. 13 (4): 53–57. doi:10.1525/fq.1960.13.4.04a00160.
  33. ^ Williams, Deane (March 2012). "Helen Levitt". Senses of Cinema (62). Archived from the original on 2016-05-25. Retrieved 2016-06-18. A critical review of Levitt's filmmaking career.
  34. ^ Rourke, Mary (April 1, 2009). "Helen Levitt dies at 95; New York street photographer of poignant dramas". Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on December 4, 2021. Retrieved December 4, 2021.
  35. ^ Elizabeth, Gand. "Helen Levitt (1913-2009) and the Camera". American Art. 23: 98–102 – via EBSCO HOST.
  36. ^ a b c Graves (2021). "Inheritors of the Street: Helen Levitt Photographs Children's Chalk Drawings". Buildings & Landscapes: Journal of the Vernacular Architecture Forum. 28 (1): 58. doi:10.5749/buildland.28.1.0058. ISSN 1936-0886. S2CID 238008765. Archived from the original on 2021-12-31. Retrieved 2021-12-04.
  37. ^ "Helen Levitt". The Economist. 2009-04-08. ISSN 0013-0613. Archived from the original on 2021-12-05. Retrieved 2021-12-05.
  38. ^ Foresta, Merry A. (July 5, 1984). "Exposed and Developed: Photography Sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts". National Museum of American Art. Archived from the original on December 5, 2021. Retrieved July 24, 2021 – via Google Books.
  39. ^ Kort, Carol; Sonneborn, Liz (May 14, 2014). A to Z of American Women in the Visual Arts. Infobase Publishing. ISBN 9781438107912. Archived from the original on December 5, 2021. Retrieved July 24, 2021 – via Google Books.
  40. ^ Strauss, David Levi (October 1997). "Helen Levitt: International Center for Photography - exhibition". Artforum. Archived from the original on 2020-06-11. Retrieved 2008-08-11.
  41. ^ Diggins, Alex (13 October 2021). "Helen Levitt: In the Street, review: the marvellous, off-kilter world of New York City's streets". The Telegraph. ISSN 0307-1235. Archived from the original on 2021-10-15. Retrieved 2021-10-16.
  42. ^ Barsam, Richard Meran (1992). Nonfiction Film: A Critical History. Indiana University Press. p. 418. ISBN 978-0-253-20706-7.
  43. ^ "Helen Levitt" (PDF). Jackson Fine Art. Archived (PDF) from the original on April 29, 2017. Retrieved March 11, 2017.

Further readingEdit

External linksEdit

  Media related to Helen Levitt at Wikimedia Commons