Tthe American poet and cultural critic David Levi Strauss described Helen Levitt without memory as “perhaps the most famous and least known photographer of his time”. That was in 1997, when Levitt was 84 and the subject of a retrospective at the International Center of Photography in New York, the city where she was born, and did most of her work. Just over two decades later and 12 years after her death, aged 95, in 2009, one can argue that little has changed in terms of her enigmatic status.
In a few weeks, however, a more radical look back at Levitt’s work will open at Photographers’ Gallery in London, which has attracted a great deal of attention at Arle’s photo festival in 2019. Titled On the street and curated by Walter Moser, art historian and chief curator of photography at the Albertina Museum, Vienna, suggests that almost everything you know about Helen Levitt, if you know her at all, is wrong.
“For too long there had been such a perception that Levitt’s photographs are lyrical and poetic, words that are all too often used lazily in the work of female photographers,” says Moser, who has spent years researching Levitt’s archive and in the process discovered many previously unseen images. “The truth is that Levitt was part of a very intellectual cultural and political environment in New York in the 1930s, and her photography reflected her deep interest in surrealism, cinema, left-wing politics and the new ideas that then emerged about the body. role in art. ”
Over two floors in Photographers’ Gallery, which also hosted Levitt’s first European exhibition in 1988, In the Street will trace her work in photography and film over 50 years of restless, curious looks. The world she observed most of the time was defiantly local – Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Bronx and Spanish Harlem – and yet recognizably universal in its capture of rhythms and gestures in children’s play and adults’ social interactions or lonely reverence. It is a dramatically different world than our own, the city streets abound with children playing with ruthless abandonment on hangers, garbage dumps and vacant buildings.
Levitt was born in Brooklyn in 1913, the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants. Her interest in photography flourished when, as an 18-year-old and after dropping out of high school, she began working in the darkroom of a commercial portrait photographer. Five years later, she bought a used 35mm camera, and in her enlightening catalog assignment for her retrospective, Duncan Forbes asks us to imagine “a small, purposeful figure who first ventured out of Bensonhurst in Brooklyn and changed himself as a modern woman through her desire to see things differently ”.
That desire would take a few years to change into a unique and subtle vision of the streets of New York, which remains an intriguing counterpoint to the more combative images made by the mostly male practitioners who followed in her wake. in the 1960s and 70s and has all but defined the term “street photography”. But on the evidence Moser has gathered from his archives, which contain previously unseen photographs, contact sheets and short films, the term “street photographer” hardly does Levitt justice.
“She does not just record as many male street photographers do,” says Siân Davey, a British documentary photographer whose quiet observational work explores the psychology of family, self and society. “Instead, you sense in her pictures a special quality of contact between her and her subjects. There is tenderness and absence of ego that tells you what kind of person she was. ”
Although Levitt was a quiet, lonely figure on the streets of New York, she was not a detached observer: Moser rather says that she wanted her subjects to be aware of her presence and react to it.
“What emerges from close attention to her contact sheet is that people often present themselves in relation to the photographer to them,” he says. “They know the participants in her photographs – they look at her, smile at her, flirt or slap a bag on her camera, although she often cuts her photographs to take these obvious acknowledgments of her presence. On one level, her photography is essentially a performative exchange, and that gives it a very modern resonance. ”
Initially, however, it was her exposure to social realism in the determined left-wing Workers Film and Photo League that shaped her early style. Through it, she absorbed the idea that photography was an agent of social change, while never fully committing herself to the communist cause as wholeheartedly as fellow photographer Lisette Model, who would later find herself on an FBI watch list. “I decided I was going to take pictures of working class people and contribute to the movements,” Levitt later said of the time. “And then I saw pictures of [Henri] Cartier-Bresson and realized that photography could be an art — and that made me ambitious. ”
She met Cartier-Bresson in 1935, introduced himself at a speech he gave to the Film and Photo League, and subsequently accompanied him on a day-shoot, though at first he was intimidated into silence by his presence. “He was an intellectual, highly educated,” she later recalled. “I was a dropout from high school.”
Her participation in the Film and Photo League also exposed Levitt to avant-garde filmmakers from Europe and Russia, as well as surreal ideas and radical developments in contemporary dance that, as Forbes puts it, elevated “an aesthetic in bodily transfiguration through movement and drama.”
These contrasting formal influences — the realist and the poetic — were central to Levitt’s way of looking, both in her photography and in her later embrace of filmmaking. As her style matured, her photographs of children seem almost choreographed in their recording of gestures and glances from play. And while they are often happy, they often have a darker undertone: the children participate in fighting games and act as gangsters in homage to the Hollywood movies of the time. In one picture, a child smokes back, as if he has just been slapped in the face by the adult threatening him. “There’s a hint of darkness in her work, but it’s never obvious,” says Brett Rogers, director of Photographers’ Gallery. “In her photographs, she presents the street as an almost theatrical landscape, where the slightest interactions and gestures are incredibly resonant.”
In 1938, Levitt met another towering, influential photographer, Walker Evans, with whom she also became friends. Evans introduced her to author James Agee, with whom she would collaborate on her book, A way of looking, and several exciting films, including On the street and The quiet, a documentary about an emotionally disturbed African American child.
For all that, Levitt was an intensely private person who gave very few interviews in his life. We know that she lived alone in her New York apartment with a cat named Binky, and that she suffered from Ménière’s disease, which causes hearing problems and dizziness. In old age she said, perhaps only half jokingly, “I have felt shaky all my life.” It seemed that her work centered her, and she pursued it with unanimous determination.
“For all the research I’ve done, her personality is a mystery to me,” Moser says. “I just could not find her. She was ambitious and knew what she wanted, and she was certainly not shy, but to a large extent she hid behind her work. ”
She also expressed herself through her photography in often bold and prior ways, such as when she in 1959 began shooting in colors. The results still scare when you see her prints for the first time, the deep tonal richness of the reds and greens adds an increased unity to her street table. A young girl crouching spider-like beneath the shiny green surface of a pristine car is a study in the reverence of childhood in the middle of an adult world that seems even more extravagantly unreal. Unfortunately, most of her color negatives were lost when her apartment was broken into in 1970, forcing her to shoot again on the same streets with renewed intensity.
In her later photographs, it is New York’s unruly energy and makeshift nature that resonate, the streets become less playful and more crowded and combative, her images less pleasing as the decades go by. “In the work she did in the ’30s and’ 40s, she always represents people occupying their own space in their neighborhoods,” Moser says, “but in the late 1960s and more profoundly in the 1980s.” “You see in her you imagine how the city has been increasingly regulated by consumerism and capitalism. This too, of course, has a real resonance for our time.”
The title of the exhibition is borrowed from her first film, On the street, which she made in 1948 in collaboration with Agee and the poet and photographer Janice Loeb. It is a short, silent, incredibly evocative stream of images from the busy streets of Spanish Harlem in the 1940s. The first words that appear on the screen are: “The streets of the poorer neighborhoods of big cities are above all a theater and a battlefield.” It comes close to capturing the special mood of Helen Levitt’s extraordinary work, if not its unique expressive power. She was and still is a quiet genius from 20th century photography.