Helen Levitt was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. She briefly apprenticed with a portrait photographer, but rejected commercial work (and formal study) for a more intuitive approach to the medium. Inspired by French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, whom she met in 1935, Levitt acquired a Leica camera in 1936. She worked mainly in the densely populated streets of Harlem and the Lower East Side, especially in the summer, for this is where and when she found activity on sidewalks and front stoops at its most vibrant. The Leica's small size, her use of a right-angle view-finder, and a sharp eye allowed her to capture her subjects quickly and inconspicuously.
Levitt spent almost her entire life in New York City, although a trip to Mexico in 1941 resulted in a significant body of work. She also worked on films, including In the Street (1945–1946; released in 1952), a short documentary done with James Agee and Janet Loeb. This film partly prompted Agee's important essay on her work, A Way of Seeing, first published in 1965. She was awarded a Guggenheim Fellow-ship in 1959 (renewed in 1960) and worked in color for much of the 1960s and 1970s. Levitt's approach is more lyrical than documentary. Though she established herself as an artist during the Depression, spent time in working-class neighborhoods, and admired the work of Walker Evans and Ben Shahn, her images are not didactic constructions exposing poverty or social injustice, though they do reveal sensitivity to issues of gender and race. Rather, they call our attention to the poetry of everyday human movements and interactions–with an eye to both laughter and sorrow.
Much of Levitt's work features children, caught playing in vacant lots, dancing in the streets, wearing masks, embracing, exploring, with or without the presence of adults. Although frequently seen at close range (leaving parts of bodies outside the frame), they almost never acknowledge the photographer. Levitt moved swiftly through their world, searching for signs of nobility and joy: a little boy comforts a friend, a girl struggles to lift her younger brother; others have fun with baby carriages, crepe paper, and boxes. In the Street is a nonscripted film featuring similar actors and activities. Yet Levitt's work occasionally hints at darker forces, though veiled in play: a boy peeks under a girl's skirt, children clutch toy guns and engage in mock battles. A similar juxtaposition of comedy and tragedy informs her photographs of chalk drawings and inscriptions, mostly done by children, which range from hilarious versions of pinup models to dark and threatening messages. In Mexico City, Levitt also photographed children. While some of the children in these Mexican pictures are absorbed in their games, others appear timid or distant, more burdened by responsibility or poverty than their U.S. counterparts.
Levitt's best-known images of children from the late 1930s and 1940s are contemporary with research on child psychology and children's art, also of interest to the surrealists. Yet the influences back and forth were generally indirect, results of a shared fascination with the complexity and contradictions of childhood and modern urban life. In her work, we see how easily games can veer into threats, how dreams collide with reality, and how adversity breeds creativity as much as tragedy. Though they are among the most complex and insightful images ever created of childhood, Levitt's photographs never attained popular fame (like those by Evans or Dorothea Lange), in part because they evade easy didactic or saccharine readings.
See also: ; Photographs of Children.
Levitt, Helen, and James Agee. 1965. A Way of Seeing. New York: Viking Press.
Levitt, Helen, and Robert Coles. 1987. In the Street: Chalk Drawings and Messages, New York City, 1938–1948. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Levitt, Helen, and James Oles. 1997. Mexico City. New York: Center for Documentary Studies in association with W.W. Norton.
Phillips, Sandra S., and Maria Morris Hambourg. 1991. Helen Levitt. San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.