Progression of Art
New York (Children with Broken Mirror)
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
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
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
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)
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
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
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
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
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