Monday, March 30, 2009

Helen Levitt, Who Froze New York Street Life on Film, Is Dead at 95

Untitled (broken mirror), Helen Levitt, New York, c.1940/all photos: Laurence Miller Gallery

© Estate of Helen Levitt
Helen Levitt in 1963.

© Estate of Helen Levitt
A 1939 image of trick-or-treaters by Ms. Levitt was part of the inaugural exhibition of the Museum of Modern Art’s photography department in 1940

Helen Levitt is one of my most admired photographers and an inspiration for some of my own photography.

Published: March 30, 2009

Helen Levitt, a major photographer of the 20th century who caught fleeting moments of surpassing lyricism, mystery and quiet drama on the streets of her native New York, died in her sleep at her home in Manhattan on Sunday. She was 95.

Her death was confirmed by her brother, Bill Levitt, of Alta, Utah.

Ms. 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.” A man handles garbage-can lids like an exuberant child imitating a master juggler. Even an inanimate object — a broken record — appears to skip and dance on an empty street as a child might, observed by a group of women’s dresses in a shop window.

As marvelous as these images are, the masterpieces in Ms. Levitt’s oeuvre are her photographs of children living their zesty, improvised lives. A white girl and a black boy twirl in a dance of their own imagining. Four girls on a sidewalk turning to stare at five floating bubbles become contrapuntal musical notes in a lovely minor key.

In Ms. Levitt’s best-known picture, three properly dressed children prepare to go trick-or-treating on Halloween 1939. Standing on the stoop outside their house, they are in almost metaphorical stages of readiness. The girl on the top step is putting on her mask; a boy near her, his mask in place, takes a graceful step down, while another boy, also masked, lounges on a lower step, coolly surveying the world.

“At the peak of Helen’s form,” John Szarkowski, former director of the photography department at the Museum of Modern Art, once said, “there was no one better.”

The late 1930s and early ’40s, when Ms. Levitt created an astonishing body of work, was a time when many noted photographers produced stark images to inspire social change. Ms. Levitt also 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 unerring instinct for a street drama’s perfect pitch. In his 1999 biography of Walker Evans, James R. Mellow wrote that the only photographers Evans “felt had something original to say were Cartier-Bresson, Helen Levitt and himself.”

Helen Levitt was born on Aug. 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, Ms. Levitt dropped out during her senior year. In a 2002 interview with The New York Times in her fourth-floor walk-up near Union Square, she said that as a young woman she had wanted to do something in the arts though she could not draw well.

Her mother knew the family of J. Florian Mitchell, a commercial portrait photographer in the Bronx, and in 1931 Ms. Levitt began to work for him. “I helped in darkroom printing and developing,” she said. “My salary was six bucks a week.”

With a used Voigtländer camera, she photographed her mother’s friends. Through publications and exhibitions, she knew the documentary work of members of the Film and Photo League and of Cartier-Bresson, Evans and Ben Shahn.

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 composition,” she said. In 1936, she bought a secondhand Leica, the camera Cartier-Bresson favored.

Two years later, she contacted Evans to show him the photographs she had taken of children playing in the streets and their buoyantly unrestrained chalk graffiti. “I went to see him,” she recalled, “the way kids do, and got to be friends with him.” She helped Evans make prints for his exhibition and book “American Photographs.”

Both the quintessentially French Cartier-Bresson and the essentially American Evans influenced Ms. Levitt. Cartier-Bresson had a gift for catching everyday life in graceful, seemingly transparent flux; Evans had a way of being sparingly, frontally direct with his commonplace subjects. Ms. Levitt credited Shahn, whom she had met through Evans, with being a greater influence than Evans. Photographs Shahn took of life on New York sidewalks in the ’30s have an unmediated, gritty spontaneity.

James Agee, a good friend, was also a major influence. She had met him through Evans, who noted, “Levitt’s work was one of James Agee’s great loves, and, in turn, Agee’s own magnificent eye was part of her early training.”

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