Henri Cartier-Bresson's reputation as the master of street photography is rightly earned. Decades after his pioneering work in the field, many have walked the same path with varying results. Other masters of street photography have come and gone, but some unassuming photographers have unfortunately been neglected for decades. Street photographer Helen Levitt, who documented New York's street life beginning in the 1930s, is one of those neglected artists.
Helen Levitt started out as an art teacher looking to document the chalk drawing on the streets as drawn by neighborhood children. One thing led to another and soon her photographs of chalk art began to include more of the kids themselves and soon the local people going about their daily lives.
Many of her photographs were in black and white, but as soon as color film became available, she jumped at the chance to document the city in vivid color. In order to support her street photography hobby, she became a film editor and documentary director.
Levitt's name isn't as well known as some of the other more famous names of street photography because she was too shy to promote herself as others did. Still, such was the quality of her work that magazines began to publish her work. She also earned scholarships which opened up the way for her to use color film.
When talking about street photography, it's hard not to compare Levitt's work with that of Henri Cartier-Bresson or Walker Evans who were both active around that time. It's hard not see why since both met her and guided her in her style. While Bresson's images have a more poetic and lyrical quality to them, and Evan's pictures had a stark yet defiant look Levitt's photographs are more raw, as if fresh out of the oven, while still maintaining an intimate manner to them.
A whole new world seemingly opened up when she started using color. Although most of her color photographs that she took in the 1960s were unrecoverable after a burglary, she continued to document city life in the 1970s and 80s. They share the kind of directness as with the images of Martin Parr, but aren't overly intrusive.
Whether the images are in color or black and white, Levitt's private personality takes a back seat to the people in her photographs. In street photography, a photographer's responsibility is to record whatever is in front of the lens, at the right place and at the right time. In Levitt's case, she does it remarkably well.
Some more of Helen Levitt's unassuming New York street photography can be seen over at the lensculture website and the Laurence Miller Gallery website. Collections of her photography can be found in Helen Levitt and Slide Show: The Color Photographs of Helen Levitt. Some of her photographs will also appear in the soon to be released book, Road Atlas: Streetphotography from Helen Levitt to Pieter Hugo.