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Levitt, Helen (1913—)

Levitt, Helen (1913—)

American photographer, best known for documenting New York street life. Born in Bensonhurst, an Italian-Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, in 1913; only daughter and the middle of three children of Sam Levitt (a businessman) and May (Kane) Levitt; left high school at 17, one semester short of graduation; never married; no children.

Called a "photographer's photographer," Helen Levitt is best known for her documentary pictures of street life in New York, first in the Italian-Jewish neighborhood of Bensonhurst in Brooklyn, where she grew up, and later in the environs of the East Village, the garment district, and the Lower East Side. Her "theatre of life" images, particularly of women and children, are poignant and frequently wrenching in their message, but they have never attracted a mass audience. "[T]he pictures offer nothing sensational, overly stylish, or conventionally beautiful to the casual viewer," writes Maria Morris Hambourg in the biographical essay "A Life in Part," which she prepared in conjunction with the first full scale critical survey and catalogue of Levitt's work, prepared by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1991. "In addition, the artist is more interested in the pictures than in their reception, she has little faith in opinions or interpretations other than her own, and she wishes to live without the intrusions of publicity."

Levitt's family was Russian and Jewish on both sides, although nationality and religion were not crucial factors in her early development. From her father, who ran a wholesale knit goods business, she inherited her composure and sense of order, and from her mother, her wit, humor, and independent nature. The middle child, with a brother on either side, Levitt grew up loving music, dancing, and the Saturday afternoon movie matinees. Her early life was also defined by physical activity, the freedom of her own moving body. She roller-skated, jumped rope, bicycled on the street outside her house, and attended summer camp, where she swam, played tennis, and learned to ride and to love horses.

Formal education did not hold much charm for Levitt, although she was an avid reader from an early age. Books handed down from her brother—The Swiss Family Robinson, the "Frank Merriwell" series, and animal stories like Black Beauty—comprised her early library. High school was another half-hearted affair, although her reading list expanded to include the works of Somerset Maugham, H.G. Wells, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and John Galsworthy, authors who helped her define herself. "In the maze of ideas expressed," writes Hambourg, "Levitt followed a thread of her own sensitivity into realms of resistance and longing for which she had no handy map. She knew only that she was different and, vaguely, that others who were different in similar ways had become artists."

Levitt dropped out of school at 17, just one semester shy of graduation. Her self-conducted education, however, was just getting under way. While living at home and working days as a sales clerk at Gimbel's department store, Levitt continued her voracious reading pattern, at one point selecting titles from a reading list she obtained from a friend who was taking a European literature course at Brooklyn College. She was most impressed by Alfred Doblin's Berlin Alexanderplatz and Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain. Levine also took advantage of the free performances of Shakespeare at the Davenport Theater, and chamber music concerts at the Metropolitan Museum and Hunter College. For socialization, Levitt attended the union hall dances which she found advertised in the "What's On" columns in The Daily Worker.

Though ideologically leftist in a time of social activism, Levitt was a half-hearted rabble rouser. "She recalls picketing D.W. Griffith's film The Birth of a Nation (1915) to protest its attitude toward Negroes," writes Hambourg. "While her colleagues resisted orders to disband, Levitt followed the officers' instructions: Handing over her picket to an incredulous friend, she went right home. Her sympathies have resisted organization ever since."

In 1931, at age 18, Levitt went to work for a photographer in the Bronx, a friend of her mother's who created standard portraits for confirmations, bar mitzvahs, graduations, and marriages. Although dark-room techniques were of little interest to her at the time, Levitt applied herself diligently, feeling that the craft held some artistic promise. Over the next four years, as she refined her skills, Levitt began to think of photography as a possible profession. By 1934, she had mastered the Voigtlander camera and the dark-room, and was taking pictures of her friends and joining her boss at monthly meetings of the Pictorial Photographers of America. At those gatherings, she encountered the work of commercial photographer Anton Breuhl and a "picture of a wave" by a Japanese photographer, which left indelible impressions.

Gradually, Levitt began to gravitate toward the Film Photo League, a group of young, socially conscious photographers and filmmakers whose influence moved her to begin to experiment with unposed shots. Although, characteristically, she did not formally join the League, she made some important connections from their ranks, including one with Sidney Meyers, a film editor who also wrote under the pseudonym Robert Stebbins as a critic for New Theater Magazine, and another with Willard Van Dyke, in whose studio she met the young French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, who was living in New York in 1935. Cartier-Bresson introduced Levitt to surrealism and, in Hambourg's words, "named her truth." "She saw that polish and polemics were tangential to the way of seeing she was seeking, and that her way also might lie in provinces of indirection and subtlety."

Inspired to turn the craft of photography into art, Levitt "consciously set about becoming the responsive instrument of her eye." She immersed herself in museum exhibitions, studying the compositions of such painters as van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne, Matisse, Daumier, and Toulouse-Lautrec. She ushered at Eva Le Gallienne 's Civic Repertory Theater, where she studied the plays of social protest, and she haunted the foreign movie houses where she was mesmerized by French and Russian films—particularly Aleksandr Dovzhenko's Aerograd (1935), a poetic film about the construction of an ideal Soviet city that she saw a half-dozen times.

The aesthetic is in reality itself.

—Helen Levitt

In 1936, marking the end of her apprenticeship, Levitt purchased a small, second-hand Leica camera and began to prowl the neighborhoods. The streets provided an endless cast of characters: a woman in galoshes and a strange hat hosing down her stoop, a down-and-out man sleeping on the sidewalk, a man in front of a factory smokestack. In her initial pictures, the canvas is broad, the people small and faraway, conveying the powerlessness of her subjects over the overwhelming urban background. In other photographs, Levitt captures pairs of people, related by place but not necessarily to each other: two women framing a blank window; two neighborhood boys playing in the street; two men seated near the El, one gesturing theatrically.

Emboldened, Levitt began to move closer to her subjects, attempting to describe "psychology through posture," to capture "the telling gesture." As she moved in tighter, she used a right-angle viewfinder that allowed her to catch her subjects unaware. She photographed children playing in East Harlem, where she briefly taught art under a Federal Arts Project program in 1937. "It is interesting that she did not choose to depict routine or organized play," writes Hambourg, "such as the hopscotch, jump rope, and stickball of her youth, but rather exclusively the play of the imagination. Levitt's kids mask, climb, mime, dance, and dream—all transitional activities creating temporary worlds existing solely for the players." Levitt remained fascinated by children at play throughout her early period.

Helen Levitt was selective about the elements of a scene, shunning "boring" streets and buildings for those more uniquely textured. Architectural details caught her eye, as did curtained widows, wash on the line, graffiti on the sidewalk, garbage ready for pick-up. "Her interest in the sites had nothing to do with documenting social conditions, and everything to do with expressive stage scenery," explains Hambourg.

From 1938 to 1939, Levitt shared a dark-room with Walker Evans, who worked in the streets much in the same manner as she did, and with whom she shared an artistic kinship. Levitt helped Evans with his exhibition "American Photographs" at the Museum of Modern Art in 1938, and through the experience learned the importance of cropping pictures carefully. Through Evans, Levitt also became close to author and film writer James Agee and Janice Loeb , a painter and art historian. Levitt blossomed during this period, gaining confidence as an artist from the praise and acceptance of those artists she respected. Having found personal techniques that worked, her photographs took on a new emotional shading and pathos. Hambourg remarks that in the pictures of this period, Levitt's moral and dramatic sense seemed to fuse. "She never took advantage of her subjects, neither ennobled nor belittled them, was not frightened or awed. Rather, standing on the same ground, she recognized them through a common language of expression."

In 1941, Levitt, who had traveled very little, went to Mexico with Agee's wife Alma Neuman Agee . Finding the culture too foreign, Levitt did little work there. She returned to New York and rarely left, having found in her familiar environment all that she needed in the way of subject matter. Soon after her return home, her friend Janice Loeb introduced Levitt to film director Luis Buñuel, who, upon seeing Levitt's photographs, hired her as an apprentice film cutter for some pro-American propaganda films he was making under the sponsorship of the Museum of Modern Art. Subsequently, Levitt received a commission from an independent firm to make a film about China using stock footage, and from 1944 to 1945 she worked as an assistant editor in the Film Division of the Office of War Information. During this time, Levitt and Loeb began to shoot scenes around New York with Loeb's old movie camera. After experimental outings, filming Gypsies (Roma) along a marsh river front and spectators viewing a parade in Yorkville, they joined with James Agee to create a cinematic version of Levitt's pictures. The idea was hatched while Agee was assembling Levitt's photographs into an essay on her way of seeing, an essay which later became the introduction to Levitt's book A Way of Seeing (1965). Filmed on the streets of East Harlem and titled In the Street, the documentary was released in 1952. Though not a "professional" presentation, the film, like Levitt's pictures, captures street life with, as Hambourg puts it, "understanding, humor, and dearness."

Another film, The Quiet One, about the psychological and social rehabilitation of a delinquent black boy at the Wiltwyck School, was shot in 1946–47 by Levitt, Loeb, and Sidney Meyers, with a commentary by Agee. Although the documentary won awards at the Edinburgh and Venice film festivals, Levitt never liked the film, feeling that the story limited the scope of her imagination. In truth, although she continued to work in films throughout the 1950s, Levitt took little pride in that part of her career.

Levitt returned to still photography in 1959, receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship to experiment with color. Unfortunately, many of her early color shots were stolen in the late 1960s. Her later pictures, in both black and white and color, echo her early period, although many of her old haunts had been altered, and she had to search for new locales. Levitt uses color only to extend the reality of the life around her, never in and for itself. This, according to Hambourg, may be why her color work is so extraordinary. "She is not distracted by a red shirt or seduced by an apricot wall; they are simply part of her experience of the world."

During the mid-1970s, Levitt taught at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, an experience that brought her in contact with the younger generation of photographers and caused her to re-evaluate her earlier work. While she had been accustomed to deciding the content of her pictures in the crop, she began using more of the negative, sometimes reprinting earlier pictures to expand the content of the scene. Her later work is larger, lighter, with less contrasts, reflecting her ongoing attempt to achieve completeness and clarity in the message she conveys.

Levitt's long career was dominated by personal and artistic modesty. She never advanced herself or her art, nor did she try to please an audience. "Levitt sought revelations—ordinary people becoming effectively mythic figures in moments of transport or trouble—that occur fleetingly in the course of things, usually seen from the corner of the eye when seen at all," writes Peter Schjeldahl in the Village Voice. "Her pictures need no analysis if you are familiar with them and beggar description if you aren't; they are so simple in impact while, in form and nuance, so complex."


Brown, Chelsea. "New York Kids," in USA Today. Vol. 121, no. 2570. November 1992, pp. 72–78.

Phillips, Sandra S., and Maria Morris Hambourg. Helen Levitt. San Francisco, CA: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1991.

Schjeldahl, Peter. Village Voice. Vol. 42, no. 25. June 24, 1997, p. 91.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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