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Levitt, Helen

LEVITT, HELEN

LEVITT, HELEN (1907– ), U.S. photographer. Born in Brooklyn, n.y., Levitt made a mark with some of the most indelible photographs of New York City street scenes in the 1930s and 1940s, a volatile time in America. Levitt, who continued working into her nineties, was considered a "photographer's photographer," little known by the public but revered by her peers. She left high school before graduating and went to work for a commercial photographer, gaining technical knowledge. She aligned herself with Henri Cartier-Bresson and Walker Evans, who later became her collaborator. In 1936 she purchased the same Leica that Cartier-Bresson used and attached a right-angle viewfinder. The equipment gave her the ability to maneuver through neighborhood streets and photograph the natural choreography of children at play. She would walk all over the city, and she took a number of memorable photographs in the streets of Spanish Harlem. "It was a good neighborhood for taking pictures in those days," she said, "because that was before television. There was a lot happening. And the older people would be sitting out on the stoops because of the heat. This was in the late 30s, so those neighborhoods were very active."

In the mid-1940s, Levitt began making films. In 1945 she, Janice Loeb, and James Agee joined forces to create a cinematic version of her photographs. Released in 1952, the film, In the Street, is a critically acclaimed record of life in East Harlem, with scenes of children playing, fighting, and dressed up for Halloween. In 1947, Levitt and Loeb, joined by Sidney Meyers, made another film, The Quiet One, an emotional story of a delinquent black child and his psychological and social rehabilitation. The street life, depiction of the child's home conditions and background, and his experiences in the country are considered innovative examples of documentary filmmaking.

After a decade of working in film, Levitt returned to still photography in 1959, this time in color. While much of this work deals with the same themes as her earlier pictures, the addition of color allowed her to intensify the emotional content. In the early 1970s, most of her color photographs were stolen in a burglary, which inspired Levitt to renew her efforts and expand the range of subjects, as well as her territory, to the East Village, the garment district, and the Lower East Side.

Intensely private, "she asked that we trust the pictures, not the words," said a curator at the photography department of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Agee, in a foreward to Levitt's 1965 book of photographs from the 1930s and 40s, A Way of Seeing, called her pictures "a major poetic work." They combine "into a unified view of the world, an un-insistent but irrefutable manifest of a way of seeing."

In 1997 she published Helen Levitt: Mexico City, photos from 1941, and in 2001, Crosstown. In 2003, Here and Now included more than 90 images never before published.

[Stewart Kampel (2nd ed.)]

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