Photography Masters - Helen Levitt
Sunday Magazine

Photography Masters - Helen Levitt

Siddharth S. Kumar

Siddharth S. Kumar

Born in New York in 1913, Helen Levitt has been described by The New York Times as: ‘a major photographer of the 20th century who caught fleeting moments of surpassing lyricism, mystery and quiet drama on the streets of her native New York.’ Levitt has a strong reputation as an American street photographer and filmmaker whose work captures the bustle, squalor, and beauty of everyday life in New York City.

Starting her photography career at 18 in a portrait studio in the Bronx, Levitt began to scour the poor neighbourhoods of her native city for subjects. In 1939 when Levitt was in her mid-20s, her images began appearing in magazines such as Fortune, U.S. Camera, Minicam and PM.

When she was 30, the Museum of Modern Art, New York held her first show, ‘Photographs of Children;’ it also included photographs from her visit in 1941 to Mexico City, where she had photographed the city’s street life. Her work was also part of the famous ‘Family of Man’ exhibition.

New York City, 1942. This photograph has many interesting focal points however what catches the viewers eye the most is the boy on the bicycle as he’s placed inside a strong frame. The bicycle boy and the ones on the left holding the frame are looking down upon the second point of interest where the two boys are busy picking up some broken shards. The people in the background gives a sense of location which is a busy street side.
New York City, 1942. This photograph has many interesting focal points however what catches the viewers eye the most is the boy on the bicycle as he’s placed inside a strong frame. The bicycle boy and the ones on the left holding the frame are looking down upon the second point of interest where the two boys are busy picking up some broken shards. The people in the background gives a sense of location which is a busy street side.

Soon enough Levitt became identified with her trademark images of children and children at play on the streets of New York, especially in Manhattan's Yorkville, where she lived, and Harlem.

During this period, Levitt collaborated for producing a prize-winning documentary, ‘The Quiet One,’ a feature length documentary about a home for delinquent boys; it received first prize at the Venice Film Festival. In 1951, she partnered for the film ‘In the Street,’ that aimed to capture in film the spirit of her photographs.

During her 40s, Levitt concentrated on film editing and directing. Both at the age of 46 and 47, she received Guggenheim Fellowships to investigate techniques using colour photography. The slides that resulted from the project and shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1963, ironically, were burgled from her apartment before they could be duplicated, and still remain untraced.

NYC, 1980. In this photograph, the girl is placed on the lower third of the frame (rule of third). The strong circular shape of the wheel and the pickle green colour and the size of the car adds to the visual weight in that region. This is balanced by the pastel blue car which is relatively smaller in size.
NYC, 1980. In this photograph, the girl is placed on the lower third of the frame (rule of third). The strong circular shape of the wheel and the pickle green colour and the size of the car adds to the visual weight in that region. This is balanced by the pastel blue car which is relatively smaller in size.

When she was 52, Levitt’s book of photographs, A Way of Seeing: Photographs of New York, showcasing her photos compiled in the late 1940s was published. Novelist and art critic James Agee wrote the introduction and he praised Levitt’s photographs, finding them ‘as beautiful, perceptive, satisfying and enduring as any lyrical work that I know.’

When Levitt was 78, the first national retrospective of her work was organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. At 84, she received the International Center of Photography's ‘Master of Photography’ Award.

Even in her 90s, her works are being exhibited worldwide. In 2007, ‘Helen Levitt: Un Art de l'accident poetique' opened at the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson in Paris. In 2008, the Sprengel Museum, Hannover, Germany chose Levitt as the recipient for the Spectrum International Photography Prize, accompanied by a major retrospective. Likewise FOAM Museum Amsterdam, mounted another major retrospective in 2008. Levitt was a 2008 recipient of the Francis Greenburger award for Excellence in Arts.

There are several books of Levitt’s photography, including In the Street: Chalk Drawings and Messages, New York City, 1938–1948, Mexico City, Crosstown, Slide Show and Helen Levitt. Another book, Here and There contains Levitt’s personal favourites from over seven decades of photographing. The book, Slide Show by Levitt published a collection of more than one hundred of her wonderful colour photos.

NYC 1942. In this photograph, the attention of the viewer shifts from the kids to the direction of the bubbles which they are looking at. The diagonal lines created by the wall and the sidewalk creates depth and also act as leading lines.
NYC 1942. In this photograph, the attention of the viewer shifts from the kids to the direction of the bubbles which they are looking at. The diagonal lines created by the wall and the sidewalk creates depth and also act as leading lines.

Levitt’s dramatic images were embedded with a surreal sense of humour, and her use of colour photography was revolutionary. Levitt is regarded as one of the pioneers of using colour as a means of artistic expression.

Levitt died at the age of 96 at New York in 2009. She will mainly be remembered as one of the foremost exponents of American street photography and a passionate observer and chronicler of everyday street life in New York.

Celebrated for their perceptive depiction of everyday life, Levitt's photographs create a palpable sense of place. Her familiarity with the subjects and scenes, imparts a unique candour to her observations. While her early works are special, her later work, embody a different kind of urban environment, which is equally effective.

Nearly 130 of her iconic works have been brought together in a recent book, Helen Levitt. The wide spectrum of photos cover her early, surrealism-influenced photographs of chalk drawings to her 1941 photos from Mexico; as also the clandestinely shot portraits of New York subway passengers. In an essay, Duncan Forbes states: ‘Helen Levitt's photographs are easy to read but difficult to fathom. Taking shape at the end of the 1930s, a decade of economic crisis, and surrounded in New York by the buzz of every kind of celluloid media, they reveal to us something profound about the world – with little comment. A Levitt photograph does not so much narrate as emanate. It communicates the lived experience of the streets rather than urban life filtered by social or political concerns.’

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Siddharth Kumar is the Co-Founder & Lead Photographer SIDART Photography, a professional photography venture focusing on weddings, portraiture and commercial photography. After an 8-year stint in an MNC, he decided to pursue his passion for photography and music. In 2019, he was awarded Certificate of Honorable Mention by International Photography Awards (IPA), Los Angeles. In 2014, he won the First Prize at the International Photography Competition organized by Mindshare Worldwide. He holds a Grade 8 Certificate in Piano Performance from Trinity College London.

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