The PhotograpHER addiction diaries – Helen Levitt

The PhotograpHER addiction diaries – Helen Levitt

Helen Levit

As a female photographer myself, I also find inspiration in other women street photographers. I can connect somewhat emotionally and relate as a woman, not just as a photographer. I would like to share my ideas in this new series called PhotograpHER. I will be discussing women photographers that inspire me and share with you how I connect with them. In this installment, I will be discussing Helen Levitt. In the following weeks, I will be looking at photographers such as Vivian Maier, Susan Meiselas, Diana Markosian, Carolyn Drake, and Bieke Depoorter. So stay tuned!

Introduction

Helen Levitt was a USA based photographer, well known, especially for her New York street photography. Levitt was born in Brooklyn’s Bensonhurst neighborhood to a Russian-Jewish immigrant family on 31 August 1913. As a teenager, Levitt wanted to be an artist but felt she “could not draw well.” When she came across an exhibition of the Pictorial Photographers of America, an association founded in 1916 which presented photographers as artists who created soulful works of art comparable to paintings, she decided that she wanted to start taking photos. 

Helen Levitt The Street Photographer

In 1931, Levitt started her path into the photography world. She learned darkroom technique while working for a portrait photographer, and by age sixteen, had decided to become a professional photographer. Helen Levitt is mostly inspired by the photographs of Walker Evans and Henri Cartier-Bresson, both of whom she became friends with. She used to shoot together with Henri Cartier-Bresson and Walker Evans, who took an interest in her children’s photos. She would photograph on the streets of New York City, especially in Spanish Harlem. Simple life and simple life situations attracted her, and through her camera lens, the ordinary life became art. 

Helen Levitt had two different photographic periods: in the ’30s and ‘40s, she photographed mainly in black and white, and in ’59 when she photographed in color. In both of these periods, the focus was on street photography. Oddly enough she didn’t photograph in between those two distinctive periods. It was a non productive time for her. Lucky for us, she decided to pick up her camera again in the late 50’s!

Being a woman photographer or a woman artist is not always easy, as history shows us for a fact and more so being an introverted woman photographer. Helen Levitt was an introvert, and she frequently refused interviews and public speeches. I think this might be one reason for which her work is less known than that of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s and Walker Evans. Nonetheless she is a great artist and we are lucky enough to be able to study her work. 

The stories behind the photographs and the fates of the people she photographed did not interest her. It was always the aesthetic that was important for her in photography; she never thought of herself as a sociologist with a camera or a photojournalist. 

Her photography work can be found in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Philadelphia Museum.

Helen Levitt

My Addiction For Helen Levitt

I am a big fan of Helen Levitt, firstly because of the way she saw photography. For the fact that she saw photography as something more than just documenting events and day to day life. She saw poetry, dance, and all that has aesthetic meaning. I like the way she saw art in the most common situations. I also like the dynamism in her photos, the grace with which she captured moments in time. 

Helen Levitt

Secondly, I got hooked by how she photographed the kids she encountered, their spontaneity and beauty, captured perfectly in her photos, sometimes seeming more mature than they were and other times being playful and funny. I also respect her choice of photographing in Spanish Harlem, focusing on smaller communities that she found interesting to shoot. I try to do this in my work, as well. I shoot in small communities and get close to my subjects. And I don’t consider myself a documentarist, but more of an artist because I capture feelings rather than events. She was interested in the aesthetic rather than the social or political meaning of what she shot, and for that, she instantly got my interest.

Helen Levitt

“Helen Levitt’s work may be called anti-journalism. An example of it (boys with branches) was shot in Spanish Harlem, Manhattan. The picture is both a dance and a loving lyric. It would be hard to find, anywhere, off-stage a scene that had more dance in it…To anyone sensitive to dance, this picture is inebriating. It is, of course, a lucky miracle of timing. But when you see an unbelievable confluence of chance in a photograph, remember that the operator was there, booted and spurred.” Walker Evans, 1969

Helen LevittHelen Levitt

My work also focuses on the aesthetic meaning and not on social events or stories behind the shots. Another thing that I find I also do is that I am drawn to the minorities. While other photographers might find these kinds of small communities places dangerous or not worth their time, I think quite the opposite. I like finding beauty where others fail to see it; I also try to bring beauty and grace in the most common daily situations.  

Thirdly I must say that I am very interested and captivated by the layering in some of her photos. Having an element that introduces us into the scene and lets us see it as if we are there, taking part in the event is rather beautiful. From my perspective, making the watcher feel as if he is there, experimenting with the same feelings you felt when you took the picture, is great art.

I am always challenged by doing this in my photographs. Sometimes when I succeed, it makes me smile and makes me think of Levitt’s work. 

Helen Levitt

Helen Levitt

Helen Levitt

Another essential element that I would like to underline is the humor she brought in her photos. She sometimes humorously presented day-to-day facts. Funny situations and encounters bring additional flavor to her work, and I like that a lot. I am not sure I succeeded in getting that into my photos, but I appreciate it when seeing other photographers’ work. I like a fine sense of humor, and she had it.  

Helen Levitt

Helen Levitt

Helen Levitt

Her black and white work done during the ‘30s and ‘40s is superb. The way she captures the kids playing in the street and the daily life hasn’t only inspired me but also generations of photographers after her, even today. I think that her work will never stop to amaze. But the thing is that Helen Levitt was also famous for her color photography. She was a pioneer, so one more reason to look up to her. I am impressed by her use of saturated colors in her work because usually, I would think that sometimes too many colors in the same photo could look crowded and meaningless. But it doesn’t look like that in her photos. Nothing of the kind, the color fits just like a glove in all her shots. Being inspired by her colour work made me more courageous when using color in my own frames. I also dig how she coordinates colors in some of her pictures; I find that hard to achieve and thus even more impressive.

Helen Levitt

Helen Levitt

Helen Levitt

Helen Levitt

Helen Levitt

Conclusion

In conclusion, I find Helen Levitt’s work to be very inspiring and educational. She is one of my most favorite women photographers, and revisiting her work never bores me. I always find something new and exciting about her, something I didn’t observe till that moment. And I think this is one thing that makes an artist so valuable; she never ceases to amaze us. I love her black and white photos and her choice of subjects, and I am drawn and fascinated by her colored work as well. I love the grace and innocence of her children’s photos and the photos presenting humorous situations. 

I am impressed that even though she never was a documentarist or journalist, she has such a substantial body of work, and this gives me the courage to follow a similar path as hers. 

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