Remembering Helen Levitt: “New York’s Visual Poet Laureate”

When I saw that this year’s World IP Day/Week celebrates the contributions of women, the first thought that came to mind was a memory of a chance meeting in the Spring of 1986 with a legendary photographer named Helen Levitt. My friend Josh and I were in New York City down from college and were supposed to stop by a gallery owned by a friend of his family. When we arrived, the owner, along with another woman who looked about seventy, was reviewing stacks of Levitt’s photographs. So, when Josh announced, “I love Helen Levitt,” he did not notice—but I did—that the older woman sitting at the end of the table, very quietly, almost to herself, said, “Thank you.”

Then, with proper introductions made, we were invited to join Ms. Levitt and the owner in poring over some of most widely-regarded images ever made in the genre of street photography. “They kept offering us more photographs like a pair of Jewish grandmothers serving chicken soup,” as Josh remembers it. At the age of eighteen, I had never heard of Helen Levitt or her work, but then neither had a lot of people due to the fact that she was an intensely shy and private person, shunning publicity for most of her more than sixty-year career capturing some of New York’s most poignant, charming, humorous, and painful little moments.

Had I thought of anything smart to ask, Levitt wouldn’t have wanted to answer it anyway, as NPR’s Melissa Block would later discover in a rare interview conducted in 2002. In response to Block asking about one photo depicting a group of girls on the sidewalk watching floating soap bubbles that seem to be following them, Levitt replied, “If it were easy to talk about, I’d be a writer. Since I’m inarticulate, I can express myself with images.”

In an era when the techno-pundits have preached to all the artists that they must abandon the concept of value in their works and instead “cultivate their personal brands” on the free platforms of abundance, this memory of a chance meeting with a woman and artist who rejected notoriety seems well suited to observing World IP Day 2018. Because without question, Levitt’s work speaks for itself, even if she was reluctant to speak for her work. As her friend, fan, and collaborator James Agee wrote in the introduction to her first book in 1965, “…the photographs as a whole body seem to me to combine in a unified view of the world, an uninsistent but irrefutable manifesto of a way a of seeing, and in a gentle and wholly unpretentious way, a major poetic work.”

Born in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn in 1913, Levitt dropped out of high school in her senior year and first learned basic photographic skills working for a commercial portrait photographer starting in 1931. By the mid-1930s, there was a growing emphasis on documentary photography, when artists like Walker Evans, Ben Shahn, and Dorothea Lange were hired by FDR’s Resettlement Administration to portray the effects of the depression and the famine of the “dust bowl.” Levitt, who would become a colleague of Evans and Shahn, was initially inspired to take pictures with a social agenda, but in that same 2002 interview, she said …

“I decided I should take pictures of working-class people and contribute to the movements. Whatever movements there were—Socialist, Communist, whatever was happening. And then, at one point, I saw the photographs of Cartier-Bresson, and I realized photography could be an art. That made me ambitious. I wanted to try to do something like that. Instead of pictures were being use for a purpose. Trying to approach making a picture that would stand up by itself.”

After Levitt met Bresson in 1935, accompanying him while he photographed the Brooklyn waterfront, she bought a used Leica the following year and taught herself composition by looking at art in museums. Then, when she began taking pictures in the city’s poorer neighborhoods, like Spanish Harlem and the Lower East Side, it was not as a documentarian but as an artist. Unlike the very specific empathy inspired by Lange’s beautifully heartbreaking “Migrant Mother,” Levitt abandoned that kind social commentary for something more subtle, or as Agee and many other critics would say, for photographs that are “lyrical.”

In the days before air conditioning and television, the streets of the neighborhoods Levitt visited were the living rooms and commons of the adults and—most of all—the playgrounds and “battlegrounds” of the the children. Here she found visual poetry.

In one of my favorite photos, a group of boys plays with a broken mirror on the sidewalk. Two of them pick through the jagged shards on the curb while another pair holds the empty, wooden mirror-frame upright so that what first grabs our attention is the small boy seated on a tricycle, positioned behind and, therefore, within the upheld frame. We instinctively see what looks like a reflection of a child who isn’t there until a moment of study corrects this perception. Particularly because of this frame-within-a-frame element, this image feels almost collage-like, composed of fragments, much like the broken bits of mirror being contemplated by the boys.

Like much of Levitt’s work, this photograph is full of kinetic energy, not so much telling a definitive story as inspiring the viewer to concoct any number of stories to describe the moments just before and just after the scene she has chosen to memorialize. Although the children in this image are demonstrably poor, neither that nor their multi-ethnicity is what Levitt presents or asks us to think about. To the contrary, the mood of the photo is more like a Rockwell idyll–just boys being boys. In this regard, it’s easy to wonder if Levitt’s profound shyness did not lend itself to a proclivity for the kind of detachment needed to make art from a keyhole view of real people. I asked my friend Marco North about Levitt’s influence on his own street photography, and he replied …

“She looked at the world really carefully, and recognized the most subtle gestures, the most fleeting laughter and elevated them to something fairly epic. I feel wisdom in her images, about life’s complexity – pain and triumph, joy and tears it is all there, with a gentle gaze, set inside a landscape (her pictures always carry context, a lot of environment with them.) I think Levitt taught me that there is a way to take the ugly, grotesque moments we witness in the street and just witness them, adding nothing overt to them, not commenting or romanticizing or demonizing – just putting a moment on a plate and serving it for lunch, no fancy parsley sprigs on it, just food for thought.”

Possibly inspired by Ben Shahn, Levitt often used a right-angle lens that allowed her to point the camera perpendicular to what she was really framing, thus preventing her subjects from altering their natural behavior for the camera. In that same NPR story, photography scholar and curator Maria Morris Hambourg describes Levitt as “like a cat, very quiet, very slight.” This jibes with the the resulting images suggesting that Levitt deftly maneuvered between the obvious icons of poverty—the broken, peeling, and threadbare neighborhoods—to capture intimate, human moments that her subjects sloughed off without the slightest awareness of their latent artistic value. As Joel Smith writes for The New York Review of Books, “Any human gesture in a street photograph—a swinging arm seen from this angle, a planted foot from that one—results from the posture and movements not of the subject alone but of two people, photographer and photographed.”

Levitt’s first solo exhibit was mounted at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1943. A year later she began collaborating with James Agee and artist Janice Loeb on a 14-minute film called In the Street. Essentially Levitt photographs in motion, segments from this film serve as the prologue to Episode Seven (2001) of Ric Burns’s New York documentary series. She received Guggenheim fellowships in 1959 and 1960 to resume her photography, this time in color. Although considered a pioneer in color work, many of her prints were unfortunately stolen out of the modest Greenwich Village walk-up apartment where Levitt lived alone for more than thirty years.

The first national retrospective of Levitt’s work was launched in 1991 by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; and in 1997, she received the International Center for Photography’s Master of Photography Infinity Award. Most of her books were published after 1987, when she was 74, suggesting Levitt might have been as reticent to market her work as she was to market herself—at least in contrast to many notable photographers. On March 29, 2009, she passed away in her sleep at the age of 95, and I wonder if there was still a box in the corner marked “Here and There,” the title of a book published in 2004.

Particularly because Helen Levitt never did “cultivate her brand,” her work, and its influence on countless subsequent photographers, says something about the meaning of “originality” in photography. The copyright skeptic often doubts the premise of “authorship,” particularly in works that are at least co-written by forces external to the author. As a mechanical (and now digital) medium of creation, photography has always been vulnerable to this criticism; and street photography might seem particularly “unoriginal” to some.

By contrast, numerous articles refer to Levitt as “New York’s visual poet laureate,” and although I cannot find the source of this accolade, it seems highly appropriate. In much the same way that Walt Whitman poeticized the precision of a blacksmith’s hammer or the dangling shawl of the prostitute in Leaves of Grass, Levitt’s street photographs are among the essential phrases in the city’s ever-expanding vernacular.

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