Streethunters Bookshelf: Helen Levitt

Streethunters Bookshelf: Helen Levitt

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Helen Levitt Book Cover

One thing that is often lost in discussion about street photography is the importance of the genre. When talking with and about contemporary photographers, I find that it is hardly discussed at all. The importance is more than a groundbreaking style. It is also more than say, the introduction of color to the genre. There is historical importance. Street photography, particularly candid street scenes, give us a sample of real life from that period in time. It is a historical document as much as straight documentary photography. It can be argued that maybe candid street is just as “real”. It’s unfiltered. Un-posed. Discreet and unobtrusive. Of course, we don’t talk about the work of current photographers in this aspect because they’re creating future nostalgia. Its historical value is almost implied. An afterthought, if a thought at all.

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It is when we look at great photographers from the past that the historical value obviously becomes apparent. Few things are sweeter than when a street photo is not only eye candy, but also a social history lesson… even though that was not the intention. Helen Levitt was one of those greats. She left us with fantastic images and put us in the scene, observing just as she did.

I’ve discussed Helen Levitt at Streethunters before in my Under The Influence series. Her work was also featured in our Street Photo Of The Week. However, the only place I viewed her images was online. While there’s plenty of her work to be seen floating about, obtaining a printed collection of her work was a high priority on my book buying agenda. ‘Helen Levitt’ (Powerhouse, 2008) finally made it into my hands, and it reaffirmed why I had it so high on my list.

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Helen Levitt (1913-2009) and her work need to be mentioned with the other greats in the genre. Levitt was friends with Henri Cartier-Bresson and Walker Evans and her work is just as important. It is without a doubt, she is an icon. However, she did not receive the recognition she deserved until the twilight of her life. This was largely due to her reluctance to talk about her work and that she generally avoided doing interviews. Her work in street photography began in the 1930’s and she had a major solo exhibition of her street work in New York City at the Museum of Modern Art in 1943. In 1959 and 1960, she received Guggenheim Foundation grants to photograph the streets of New York City, but this time it was to be in color, unlike the black and white work featured at MoMa. With these achievements, amongst others in her 70 years in photography, one has to question why she didn’t receive the recognition she should have while she was active. Not only was she a pioneering street photographer, she was a pioneering woman street photographer. Could it be because street photography was (and still is) an old boys club? And why is her work, to this day, mentioned behind other women like Diane Arbus and Vivian Maier?

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The answer, is this, I believe.. While they were both excellent photographers, they both had elements working for them in regards to notoriety. Arbus was known for photographing people on the fringe of society. There was also her exit from this world by her own hand. Maier, albeit posthumously, had the fantastic story of discovery of her images and the tidal wave of publicity that followed. Levitt, on the other hand, shied away from any sort of hype machinations. And her images were not shocking. If anything, what she captured was ordinary. Delightfully ordinary. And she captured them beautifully.

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‘Helen Levitt’ is a celebration of those images and it’s executed magnificently. Covering a period from 1937-1991, the book becomes a vessel in which the reader can time travel. Thankfully, this vessel is large, at 12.2 inches (30.99cm) by 12.9 inches (32.77cm) and 168 pages, giving us many sights to see on the trip. The humble green cloth cover, with Levitt’s name in gold being the only text, gives no indication of the greatness found inside on the thick, glossy pages. The volume, which was the last of hers published, was released in conjunction with an exhibition at Hannover’s Sprengel Museum. Amongst the iconic work I’ve seen online is a wealth of images I haven’t seen before. The abundance of familiar and unfamiliar images make it an impressive retrospective, one that repeatedly excited with the joy of discovery.

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‘Helen Levitt’ contains both her monochrome and color work. However, they aren’t represented in chronological order. Both are represented in alternating chunks throughout the book… a group of pages in color, then a group in mono. Although a chronological presentation would make sense in a retrospective such as this, the approach taken here works nicely. Since both eras are represented, having them broken up in these alternating sections makes for a nice flow through the book, instead of bombarding the viewer with all the monochrome and then all the color at once. A break on the eyes and it keeps the book fresh through repeated views.

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Helen Levitt was New York City born and bred, so naturally most of the images in the book are from there. The color images from New York City, I felt, have a distinctive Big Apple feel, reminiscent of stills from cinema of the 1970’s and 1980’s. The colors are bright and the streets seem almost more alive. But make no mistake, the black and white photographs stand strong as well. It’s classic street photography. Classic tones and classic feel. But New York City isn’t the only stop here. A selection of superb images from Levitt’s work in Mexico City is also included. Truly gorgeous black and whites which were new to me and have fast become a few of my favorites. The only drawback is that there isn’t more of Levitt’s Mexico City images included here. The small sampling only left me wanting more.

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In fact, the book, as a whole left me wanting more. Helen Levitt is a testament to how great candid street photography is and how great she was at shooting it. A sampling of six decades of everyday life is what she left us and like I said previously, the scenes are delightfully ordinary. She was able to see moments, and, more importantly, capture them in a way that was often heartwarming and empathetic. It wasn’t just what she captured, but how she captured it. It is almost as if these moments couldn’t be captured any other way. Even though we’re distant in time and space, she makes us feel otherwise. She makes the moment and our relationship with it intimate.

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To single out one image within the book would be a crime considering it is such a grand collection. New favorites appear with each reading. The passage of time is reflected inadvertently, somewhat reminiscent of the technique of using flashbacks on a film. I’m fairly certain this wasn’t the intention, but that is the feel. The subject’s attire, storefronts, signage, vehicles… all changing going from color to black and white and back again, evoking different moods and feels. Levitt enjoyed shooting children and those images are arguably her strongest work. Her love of the innocent moments of joy and beauty they provide leap off the page in this book. It is these moments that make it a truly endearing collection.

‘Helen Levitt’ is what I consider a foundation book for a photo book collection. It is that solid. That good. And her work stands strong with the more well-known street photographers. A proper sit-down with this book will reveal how influential she’s been on photographers active today. Consider this volume essential. A document that will be a oft-viewed reminder of how important this photographer truly was.

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  1. Thank you Andrew, again a very good and very interesting review, I’ve put ‘Helen Levitt’ in my wishing list.

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