Amsterdam, Europe Brief News – Helen Levitt was born and raised in New York. Raised in Brooklyn, she began her lifelong tribute to the streets of New York from the early 1930s.
She was encouraged and supported by the street photographers, better known to the general public, Walker Evans and Henri Cartier-Bresson.
She went to work as an assistant to Evans and in 1938 made the prints for his historical exhibition American Photographs. In 1943 she had her first major solo exhibition at the New York MoMA.
From the start, street scenes and the people of her hometown of New York were her subjects. She understood the art of sneaking through a city and catching dreams with her Leica.
In the words of journalist and writer James Agee, “She knew where she had the best chance of getting a good catch.” Her favourite neighbourhoods were Spanish Harlem and the Lower East Side, where the poorer people lived. Because the mainly Spanish-speaking and coloured residents lived in smaller houses, people in those neighbourhoods still played and lived on the streets.
With all its drama, sadness, and colour, entire life played out in the open air. You see people leaning against doorways, hanging from windows, life gushing out. The street as a stage, New York reduced to decor.
Although there is an interesting documentary aspect to her photos, it is above all the enormous lyrical and poetic power of her work that appeals.
Not coincidentally, one of her first significant subjects was the chalk drawings that children made on the sidewalks and facades of New York, a project that would only be bundled together much later under the name In the Street. Chalk drawings and messages, New York City 1938-1948.
In her first real book, the beautiful A Way of Seeing, many of the photos from this exhibition come from, children also play the leading role. While other photographers emphasize poverty and shelter, Levitt shows playfulness and zest for life.
This very endearing series of photos is reminiscent of a fantasy story in which children have taken over the city as a playground. They climb on facades and trees, fight through the streets with wooden swords, fantasize an escape route from the unruly reality. They blow bubbles while the American dream explodes in the background. You see them as little rascals with toy guns, cool cats in cool poses, kids with masks on before they become adults with masks on. The future shines upon them. Children have eternity; time has no hold on them.
Levitt started colour photography in the late 1950s. Before that, colour was only used in the fashion and advertising world. She thus becomes one of the pioneers of the genre.
It is striking that the subject of her photos gradually changes. She will focus on comic situations, small coincidences, everyday life that constantly wavers between banality and poetry.
A voluptuous woman with her children squeezed into a narrow telephone booth, a man who, for god knows what has a shopping bag on his upper body, a child and a dog who happen to be lost in the same thoughts.
Like Cartier-Bresson, she has an unerring sense of the ‘decisive moment’ when all the stars, composition, subject and colour come together to form an utterly unique yet universal tableau. Her colour photos show an enormous wealth. The more poignant is that almost all her photos from the 60s were stolen during a burglary.
Levitt does not engage in politics, whether in black and white or colour. Her photographs are not essays. They are not meant to make a point. She only shows the human being: vital, colourful, pitiful, moving from the youngest and most radiant specimens to those who have already encountered some setbacks to dThe elderly whose faces have been marked by the traces of time with the first growth rings. New York plays a brilliant supporting role.
The graffiti in the background tells of dreams and lost loves and favourite baseball and football teams. The children from then have become grandfathers or grandmothers or have died in many cases. We see bygone lives from bygone times, just as ours gradually evaporate.
At the end of her life, after more than seventy years of street photography, Levitt expressed regret at how she had seen life on the street change: “I always went to places where there was much life. The children used to play outside all day long. Today the streets are empty. If you want to turn off the television and get some fresh air, a foundation is a good start. People are sitting inside and watching television.”