Friday, September 16, 2011

Helen Levitt: New York's Unassuming Street Photographer


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.

23 comments:

AllenTesch said...

I like the old couple crossing the street in front of the new muscle cars. New and young waiting for the old, or ready to run over the old...I dunno.

D4 said...

These are really nice to just look at. I imagine those books would be amazing to own.

Generally Disgruntled said...

I can't specify what it is, but I really enjoy street photography. It just captivates human existence.

Major.Mack said...

nice pictures..

ChazWellington said...

i can see why shes neglected. Its cool to see how things were in the past though

_Lumina_ said...

I agree with the "raw" quality, of the photos, every picture seems to be a sort of time capsule, if you will. Each of these is magnificent, keep posting the awesome pics, I don't even know how you find them all. :)

Astaroth said...

pretty nice stuff!

NutriSystem Weightloss Journey said...

Love it!!!

Bart said...

wat... thers a noseless afghan girl...what in the shit.

Bonjour Tristesse said...

Love these natural candid shots. It's like an instant time warp for me.

Shaw said...

That guy in the first pic is a legit gangster

Kid Shuffle said...

Its a shame she was too shy to promote herself, she was really quite talented!

The Angry Lurker said...

Good honest pictures especially the elderly couple.

Fang said...

Some of those are really interesting photo's. Shows things that are a little bit different, a little bit odd, but pictures them as slightly more normal than they actually are.

MRanthrope said...

amazing work. That shot of the elderly couple in the cross walk is beautifully heartbreaking.

neatfit said...

Nice old pictures, some of these are funny too.

My 2 Pesos said...

Man of the first photo looks so classy. :D

mis2pesos.blogspot.com
twitter.com/#!/my2pesos

Shutterbug said...

No doubt about it, he certainly has an eye for street photography!

Gizmo said...

I like these photos!

Necroticism said...

Love the second one, of the kid, the man and the two ladies.

A Heel in Mint said...

raw yet intimate is a good way of describing these pictures. :)

Dale said...

I really liked looking through these pics. They are so unique and the ones with the kids is really cute and I like the one with the woman in the telephone booth and then her kids crammed inside. Cool reading she got scholarships too.
xoDale

Michał Słomiński said...

Amazing Gallery.

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...