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Helen Levitt Photo

Helen Levitt

American Photographer and Filmmaker

Movements and Styles: Street Photography, Documentary Photography, Surrealism

Born: August 31, 1913 - Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, New York

Died: March 29, 2009 - New York, New York

Helen Levitt Timeline

Important Art by Helen Levitt

The below artworks are the most important by Helen Levitt - that both overview the major creative periods, and highlight the greatest achievements by the artist.

New York (Children with Broken Mirror) (1939)
Artwork Images

New York (Children with Broken Mirror) (1939)

Artwork description & Analysis: In this photo, two children hold up a broken mirror as others crouch to examine the shards of glass left behind. Behind the frame a little boy on a bicycle hurdles forward, as if he is about to break through the plane of the frame itself. Absorbed in play, Levitt's presence goes completely unnoticed by her subjects.

Influenced by Surrealism's interest in examining the presence of the uncanny in the everyday, Levitt captures a moment when the ordinary becomes extraordinary. At first glance, the boy on the bicycle could appear as if he is a reflection of someone not present in this image, a framed image propped up by real boys. But upon closer inspection, the viewer realizes that the frame itself is empty, and the boy careening awkwardly towards the viewer is in fact very real and is about to stumble over the frame and spill into the reality of the street scene (and maybe even the shards of glass below). The image is taken just before this happens, just before the mirage of the boy is revealed to in fact be real, playing with the viewer's ability to distinguish between reality and representation. It is this surreal element of the photo that commands the viewers' attention as well as their imagination.

This image was shown at her exhibition titled Photographs of Children at The Museum of Modern Art in 1943. Throughout much of Levitt's career, her images explore the theme of children absorbed in play. Steering away from the stereotype of a female photographer's motherly stance towards children, Levitt's children are neither serene nor innocent. Rather, they are mischievous, clumsy, and engaged in the serious business of play. As if to counter the assumption that her interest in children stemmed from her gender, she would insist with a mischievous smile that she "hated kids." Levitt's images of children are focused on the subjective experience of being an adult voyeur as they are about the children themselves - Levitt was interested in the surrealist element of childhood as primal state of being.

Silver gelatin print - Whitney Museum, NY

New York (1939)
Artwork Images

New York (1939)

Artwork description & Analysis: Posed on a regal (yet in a state of slight disrepair) stoop of a Brooklyn brownstone, three children wearing masks strike theatrical poses, infusing the image with drama and wonder. However, the youngest child is not quite ready - her mask is not yet secured around her head, and she is caught in the moment of putting it on. Her older siblings in front of her, with their masks already secure, exude a poise and grace well beyond their age.

This image also demonstrates Levitt's remarkable eye for human movement and body expressions. The framing of the image suggests that Levitt was on the sidewalk below the children, and its angled composition suggests that Levitt took this as she was walking by. This is an important aspect of Street Photography that was focused on depicting life "as it really was," and shunned posed images as less authentic as a result. Yet, this image has a theatrical quality to it that is at odds with the supposed objectivity of both street and documentary photography. In this tension between posed and authentic, Levitt's eye as a photographer is revealed. Uninterested in maintaining an "objective" or neutral view of the world, Levitt instead chose to capture a subjective truth in which there was always a dance between what was real and what was imagined. For instance, the dual narratives of the metaphorical significance of this image (adulthood as a social costume being mimicked by the children) and the reality that they are simply preparing to go trick-or-treating for Halloween is what captivates and maintains the interest of the viewer. This image was a part of her 1943 MoMA exhibition Photographs of Children, and was later renamed Three Kids on a Stoop.

Gelatin silver print - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

New York (1940)
Artwork Images

New York (1940)

Artwork description & Analysis: A little girl bathed in a swath of sunlight strikes a pose reminiscent of an awkward Flamenco dancer, as her companion appears to have been captured in the moment right before a swirl himself. The seriousness of the girl's facial expression is balanced by the levity of the scene of two small children dancing gleefully in the street. Taken during the intense racial segregation and a rampant fear of black men in the 1940s, Levitt makes an implicit social statement against racial division. In this moment, the two children are free from society's constraints dictating their separation from one another. The genius of this photograph rests in the swath of light that bathes the white little girl, and leaves the black boy in shadow - a subtle evocation of the very different social realities each will face.

Throughout Levitt's career she was dedicated to portraying social and racial inequalities. Her status as an immigrant woman growing up in Brooklyn made her particularly attuned to social injustice. The theme of such injustice would be further explored when Levitt changed to film as well as in her later color photographs. In many ways, this image can be read as a precursor to the film she and acclaimed author James Agee would write and Levitt, alongside Janice Loeb, would later be a cinematographer for the film titled The Quiet One (1948), which is about an emotionally troubled black boy in New York City, as well as to her short film about life in Spanish Harlem titled, In The Street (1953). This photograph ultimately projects an image of human existence that unsentimentally challenges misconceptions about race.

Silver gelatin print

New York (1940)
Artwork Images

New York (1940)

Artwork description & Analysis: In this image, the boy in the center holds his hand confidently to his chest, fingertips inside his vest. He stares intensely at the viewer, his lips open, as if he is in the midst of a grand soliloquy. This boisterous and energetic proclamation captures the mischievous side of childhood. These boys are no angels, and yet their theatrical poses evoke a celebratory and joyous tone - as if even their misdeeds deserve acclaim. The children are dignified, with unabashed bravado, taking the world for their stage. Also included in her MoMA exhibition Photographs of Children, this posed photograph is an exception among Levitt's work, as she usually tried to take photographs unnoticed. Instead, here, the boys directly engage the viewer, enticing us to wonder exactly what the boy in the center was saying.

Silver gelatin print - Museum of Modern Art, New York

New York (Bubbles) (1945)
Artwork Images

New York (Bubbles) (1945)

Artwork description & Analysis: In this well-known image, four girls, walking down a city sidewalk, turn to look at soap bubbles drifting up over the street. On the other side of the street, a brick wall extends into the distance where hazy city buildings are visible. The divide between imagination and reality is embodied by the edge of the sidewalk, which runs as a sharp diagonal line through the composition, dividing the world occupied by the girls and the world of imagination evoked by the delicately floating bubbles that have captured their attention..

The photograph famously conveys the wonder and curiosity of childhood. The worn surface of the street, and the well-worn shoes and clothing of the children communicate working-class poverty, and the street extending into the distance suggests the empty future ahead. Because the soap bubbles have no definable source, they are mysterious, and their bright frailty is accentuated against the dark stone expresses the transitory nature of the moment and of childhood itself. When asked to describe this image later in her life, Levitt said the image was about, "just what you see... If it were easy to talk about, I'd be a writer. Since I'm inarticulate, I express myself with images."

Silver gelatin print - Museum of Modern Art, New York

In the Street (1952)
Artwork Images

In the Street (1952)

Artwork description & Analysis: Children rule the streets in this film, as the sequences jump between shots of them playing, laughing, and crying to scenes of adults absorbed in their own lives. The juxtaposition between adults and children heightens both the spontaneous joy and cruelty of childhood. Throughout the film, the adults appear seemingly unaware of the fantastical reality the children have crafted for themselves. The scenes that comprise this 16 minute film range from shots of kids in Halloween costumes, donning skeleton masks made of paper, kids waging a battle with fistfuls of flour, which splash across the black and white film like magic, to adults peacefully walking their dogs or conversing with their neighbors. Refusing a linear, or even singular, narrative in the film, Helen Levitt's cinematography is a moving extension of the spontaneous aesthetic she mastered in her still images. The film jumps between scenes and places seemingly at random, but always with a lyrical flow. Just as soon as one scene is established, the film jumps to another scene entirely.

In the introduction to this film a text reads, "The streets of the poor quarters of great cities are, above all, a theater and a battleground. There, unaware and unnoticed, every human being is a poet, a masker, a warrior, a dancer: and in his innocent artistry he projects, against the turmoil of the street, an image of human existence. The attempt in this short film is to capture this image." This film was scripted by writer James Agee and shot by Helen Levitt with the help of friend and fellow artist Janice Loeb. Shot mostly in Harlem and the Lower East Side, the film's unique composition echoes Agee's sentiment that the streets are both a theater as well as a battleground.

The legacy of documentary filmmaking at the time typically imposed a singular and heroic narrative that both Levitt and Agee saw as reducing the raw energy and complexity of everyday life. While the film was received as a documentary, both Agee and Levitt resisted that category in both Agee's script as well as in Levitt's shooting of it. As the film studies scholar Juan Antonio Suarez says of the film, it "eschews the stereotyping and sentimentalizing typical of much 1930s documentary work, where characters are viewed in terms of wider social groups, as stand-ins." It is this aspect of the film that helped earn it critical acclaim for its humanizing approach, and ultimately cemented its place at the forefront of avant garde cinema in the 1950s.

16mm black and white film - Whitney Museum of Art

New York (1959)
Artwork Images

New York (1959)

Artwork description & Analysis: In this photograph, the brightly colored background of torn billboards announcing various boxing bouts frames an otherwise drab and vacant lot. A man sits in front of his empty cart, talking to a small child, while two other men just behind them talk. The dirty heaps of used clothing imply the hard work of their daily lives, and also create a barrier between the street and the vacant lot, so that the space seems to belong to the men.

This image was made when Levitt received a highly regarded grant from the Guggenheim Foundation to record scenes from the poor and working class neighborhoods of New York City in color. It is one of eight surviving images from this time period because in 1970 her color negatives and prints from this project were stolen from her apartment, never to resurface.

Color photography was in its early stages during this time, and had been previously looked down upon by serious photographers - Walker Evans declared that color photography was "vulgar." Despite this, or perhaps because of this, Helen Levitt was one of the first art photographers to take it seriously and explore its possibilities. In this image, Levitt uses color to highlight both the poverty as well as the humanity of the scene - the brightly pops of color contrast starkly with the dingy blankets and detritus, and even the people in the abandoned lot. All of this merely sets the stage for what really interested her: the humanity and familiarity between people.

Chromogenic color print - Museum of Modern Art, New York

New York (1971)
Artwork Images

New York (1971)

Artwork description & Analysis: In this image, an African American woman talks to an African American man pushing his hot dog cart, named "House of Weenies," down a littered city street. Behind them, a BBQ sign hangs over the entrance of shuttered building, and a billboard advertises the radio show "Yankee Baseball and Bill White." The punches of color guide one's eye through the composition, drawing attention not just to the people in the middle of conversing, but also to the background billboards that provides a context and location to the subjects.

The decaying urban landscape conveys the historical weight of poverty, but a sense of wry humor prevails in the interaction between the woman who seems quite sure of whatever she's talking about, staring ahead as she walks, and the man who turns to look at her askance. His quizzical look speaks to Levitt's proclivity towards humor and wit. The man's pristine white coat and his hot dog cart with its two signs suggest that he takes pride in ownership. Food carts were a relatively new invention and something that would have been unique to major cities. This image stands in remarkable contrast to her earlier photographs, despite the similar subject matter for both its brilliant full color as well as the modernity represented by the billboards and the hot dog cart. The New York of 1971 was dramatically different than the New York of the 1940s, when Levitt first began photographing. The broad scope of time in which Levitt worked revealed both the constant change of the 21st century but also an enduring and timeless subjectivity about the nature of human life.

Chromogenic color print - Museum of Modern Art, New York

New York (1980)
Artwork Images

New York (1980)

Artwork description & Analysis: In this photograph, a girl crouches in the gutter of a street with legs akimbo, with her head lowered to her right knee. The brilliant Kelly green of the car directly behind the girl and the turquoise beetle create a lyrical balance of color, for which Levitt's color images were known. The cuff of the girl's shirt matches the white wall of the tire, which leads up to the curved green of the wheel well and the bright color of the car, then to the blue of the Beetle and a patch of blue wall above two trash cans in the right background. The color is so choreographed that the setting seems almost deliberately composed, which further emphasizes the mystery of the girl's activity.

Most of Levitt's photos focus on human movement, as a telling gesture expresses the subject's personality, but in her color work, she often focused on moments of disconnection. We cannot see the girl's face, and as a result of this, her emotional state is hidden from us and her awkward positioning suggests she is looking for something that is equally hidden from her. An ordinary setting thus becomes ambiguous.

Encompassing both the spontaneity as well as the Surrealist elements for which her work was known, this color image explains why Levitt was known as "New York's visual poet Laureate." The wonder and strangeness of the image captivates and invites the viewer to imagine their own narrative for the image. Levitt's expansive career was full of starts and stops, switching from black and white photography to film and then back to photography in order to experiment with color film. However, the strength of her images withstands the test of time, as her later work remains as fascinating and fresh as her earliest photographs. This speaks to Levitt's expansive legacy and her unique vision of the world around her.

- Laurence Miller Gallery, New York



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Helen Levitt Photo

Related Art and Artists

Un Chien Andalou (1929)
Artwork Images

Un Chien Andalou (1929)

Artist: Luis Buñuel

Artwork description & Analysis: This silent short film, inspired by the dreams of Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, fulfills the Surrealist goal of achieving the pure automatism of the dream state, liberated from the constraints of reason, logic, traditional narrative, and temporal unity.

Un Chien Andalou shocks at multiple levels, showing acts of irrational physical violence, raw sexual desire, rotting animal carcasses, insects, and a complete violation of the fundamental rules of logical plot. In his Poetics, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle had written that a work of literature or drama must consist of actions that arise logically out of each other, as well as preserve a unity of time and place. These rules of plot structure had dominated Western literature and theatre for centuries. But from the beginning, as they worked on their script at Dalí's home in Cadaques, Buñuel and Dalí agreed that nothing about the film could have a rational explanation. The resulting film has no narrative or linear logic. Skipping arbitrarily through time, "eight years later" and "sixteen years earlier," the film mocks and subverts the "title cards" that were used in silent movies to fill in temporal and narrative breaks.

There is no core narrative, although, if there is a constant at all in the film, it is an agonizing sense of sexual desire and sexual failure. Several of the film's images are among the most disturbing ever produced in the history of cinema: a razor slicing through a passive woman's eyeball, ants crawling out of an open wound on a hand, a woman's armpit hair turning into a man's beard, and many more. In the final scene, the romantic image of a happy couple cuts to an image of the same man and woman buried in the sand, the positions of their bodies or inclined heads reminiscent of Jean-François Millet's famous painting of 1859, The Angelus.

Both Buñuel and Dalí dismissed any attempts at analysis or rational meaning. Dalí wrote that the film "consists of a simple notation of facts... enigmatic, incoherent, irrational, absurd, inexplicable." In anticipation of a riot at the premiere in Paris, Buñuel filled his pocket with rocks to hurl at protesters - he later expressed his disappointment that a film aimed at offending the bourgeoisie was actually applauded by it.

Place de l'Europe Gare Saint Lazare (1932)
Artwork Images

Place de l'Europe Gare Saint Lazare (1932)

Artist: Henri Cartier-Bresson

Artwork description & Analysis: Place de l'Europe is one of Cartier-Bresson's most successful images. The snapshot of a man gleefully hopping over a flooded area in Paris captures the moment just before the man's heel hits the water. The instant is filled with a sort of dynamic anticipation. A hazily-captured building in the distance contrasts with the richly ornamented, spiked fence and the two diverse elements combine in an alchemy of lines, curves, and reflections that creates the urban background for the jumper. Diagonal to the figure is a poster featuring a finely-drawn image of a female dancer leaping gracefully into the air. The poster for a circus called "Railowsky" is a visual play on the jumper's stiff stride that extends in a blur across the picture frame.

The spontaneity of the photo, which was captured in the bustling urban space, the Place de l'Europe outside of the busy Paris train station of Saint Lazare, epitomized the new, fast-paced environment in Europe with its trains, cars, and factories. Modern motion is celebrated by the fact that it is forever stopped, the leaping man will never hit the puddle, the split-second image is permanently frozen in time. The improvements in camera technology allowed for such images to be made and this progress is celebrated in Cartier-Bresson's photographs.

The iconic railway served as the setting for many famous twentieth-century painters such as Manet, Caillebotte, and Monet, all of whom had been influential in Cartier-Bresson's own artistic development. This photo would also come to embody what he later described as the "decisive moment" - that instant a photographer decides to press the shutter and the event it memorializes.

Place de l'Europe is one of only a few photographs that Cartier-Bresson ever chose to crop. Ordinarily, he avoided adjusting his work after originally framing a shot and instead embraced unmediated chance encounters, an aesthetic preference and practice that made him one of the founders of street photography. A fragment of the fence that he is behind can be seen in the original shot and partially obscures the view.

Gelatin silver print - Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York

Alabama Cotton Tenant Farmer Wife (1936)
Artwork Images

Alabama Cotton Tenant Farmer Wife (1936)

Artist: Walker Evans

Artwork description & Analysis: While Evans was on leave from his job for the FSA during the summer of 1936, Fortune magazine commissioned him to collaborate with writer James Agee on a piece that focused on impoverished sharecropping families from Alabama. Fortune never published the material that ensued from this commission, but it resulted in some of Evans's most iconic works. In 1941 their collaboration was assembled into a book entitled Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Deemed by the New York Public Library to be one of the most influential books of the last century, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men scrutinized a culture's character and captured the cadence of its ordinary people. Refusing to dramatize poverty, this series of unlabeled photographs captured the Great Depression as stark, truthful tragedy. The faces, towns, rooms, and clothes of impoverished famers distilled the hardship being felt all over the country.

Evans made several photographs of Mrs. Burroughs, each slightly different from the others but all bound by a characteristically clean composition and penchant for visual clarity. The weathered wall behind her, with its evocative horizontal lines, anticipates the abstraction of future photographers like Aaron Siskind and Frederick Sommer. These straight lines underscore the flatness of her unsmiling, prematurely aged features, and her expression - head slightly tilted, brows slightly furrowed, mouth slightly downturned - holds us captive precisely because it is so difficult to read. As opposed to an allegory of suffering and privation, Burroughs is an individual.

Gelatin Silver Print - Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and revised by Allison Harbin

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised by Allison Harbin
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