She captured the bustle, squalor and beauty of everyday life in New York City.
Helen Levitt was the most celebrated and least known photographer of her time. She took her camera to the city’s poorer neighborhoods, like Spanish Harlem and the Lower East Side, where people treated their streets as their living rooms and where she showed an instinct for catching the street drama and mysteries.
‘It was a very good neighborhood for taking pictures in those days because that was before television,’ she said. ‘There was a lot happening. The older people would be sitting out on the stoops because of the heat. They didn’t have air conditioning in those days. The neighborhoods were very active in the 30’s.’
She was born August 31, 1913, in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Her father Sam, a Russian-Jewish immigrant, ran a successful wholesale knit-goods business; her mother, May, was a bookkeeper before her marriage.
Finding high school unstimulating, Helen dropped out during her senior year. She said she wanted to do something in the arts but she could not draw well. Her mother knew a commerical portrait photographer and in 1931, Ms. Levitt began to work for him in his darkroom developing film and printing. Her salary was six dollars a week.
In 1935, she met Cartier-Bresson when he spent a year in New York. On one occasion she accompanied him when he photographed along the Brooklyn waterfront. She also trained her eye, she said, by going to museums and art galleries.
‘I looked at paintings for compositions,’ she said.
In 1936 she bought a second-hand Leica, the camera Cartier-Bresson favored.
But Helen Levitt credits Ben Shahn as her greatest influence.
‘Photographs Shahn took of life on New York sidewalks in the 30’s had an unmediated, gritty spontaneity,’ she said.
Fortune magazine was the first to publish Levitt’s work in its July, 1939 issue on New York City.
The next year her Halloween picture was included in the inaugural exhibition of the Museum of Modern Art’s photography department.
Intensely private, Ms. Levitt shunned the limelight and seldom gave interviews. She remained little known to the general public even as late as 1991, when the first national retrospective of her work was organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
To support herself, in the early 40’s, Helen worked as a film editor. By 1949, and for the next decade, she was a full-time film editor and director.
Her film ‘In the Street’ released in 1952, is the way one imagines Levitt’s photographs would look if they were to spring to life. The 14-minute documentary of Spanish Harlem, with a piano playing on the soundtrack, is droll, artless and dear.
She stopped making her own black and white prints in the 1990’s because of sciatica, which prevented her from standing too long.
Changes in neighborhood life also affected her work. ‘Children used to be outside. Now the streets are empty. People are indoors looking at television.’
When she returned to still photography in 1959, it was to work in color; she was among the first notable photographers to do so. But much of this early color work was lost when her apartment was burglarized in the late 60’s.
Helen Levitt captured instances of a cinematic and delightfully guileless form of street choreography that held at its heart, as William Butler Yeats put it, ‘the ceremony of innocence.’
She died in her sleep at her home in Manhattan in March, 2009 at the age of 95.
Recently, Powerhouse Books has published several volumes of her work.
Here and There (2004)
Helen Levitt (2008)