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!
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.
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 It is a historical document as much as straight documentary photography.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.
It’s been said that we are judged by the company we keep. Certainly there is truth in that. As people, when considering our basic moral fiber, this applies. As far as street photographers go, this applies as well. I’m not saying that a photographer is good because they ran in a certain pack, but this idea definitely holds water in the interest of research and discovery. Basically, when looking at the masters of the craft, if a name is mentioned as a contemporary of that great, the odds are… they’re worth checking out. And, it’s a low-risk bet that their work is going to be pretty damn good.
For example, look at this crew of contemporaries from the New York City scene in the 1960’s and 70’s: Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, Joel Meyerowitz and Garry Winogrand. All greats. Imagine them bouncing ideas off of each other, pushing each other. Great company. Going further back, consider this power trio: Henri Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans and Helen Levitt. However, these three did not run together, so to speak. Helen Levitt was friends with both Cartier-Bresson and Evans. Though her name is not as hallowed as her friends’, Levitt was, without any doubt, a master. And the likely reason she’s not as “famous” was her reluctance to talk about her work, it’s that she shied away from the public eye, generally avoiding interviews.
Street Photo of the week by Helen Levitt
Helen Levitt is our choice for this weeks Master of Street Photography. Documenting life post the ‘Great Depression’, Helen Levitt’s work presents the ordinary. No special event, no decisive moment, just kids playing, people passing, wives gossiping , virtually nothing other than the stuff of day to day life. By doing this and being consistent in her vision Helen Levitt is able to extract this mundane from it’s drudgery and elevate it into something which resonates even today. Far from being nostalgic her work appears to capture recurring moments in everybody’s lives making it shine.