“All I can say about the work I try to do,
is that the aesthetic is in reality itself.” – Helen Levitt
Though not always credited as such, Helen Levitt was one of the finest street photographers of the twentieth century and an early exponent of color, who spent much of her career capturing the theatre of quotidian life in her native New York City.
Though she worked briefly with a commercial portrait photographer, it was a chance encounter with Henri Cartier Bresson in the early 1930s, and a subsequent exhibition of his work (alongside that of Walker Evans & Manuel Alvarez Bravo) that ultimately inspired Levitt to dedicate herself to photography.
Armed with her 35mm Leica she wandered the neighborhoods that surrounded her Manhattan home, transcribing life as it unfolded on the sidewalks, stoops and streets.
Her distinct visual language was simultaneously forthright and performative, molded in part by her interest in leftwing politics; avant-garde film; the surrealist movement, and contemporary dance, and speaks to the quiet genius of a unique practitioner whose vision helped shape the landscape of contemporary ‘street photography’.
Spanning five decades, her remarkable images almost exclusively depicted New York City. From her early monochrome works, which included little-known photographs of pavement chalk drawings, to her captivating color images from the 1970s and 80s, she displayed remarkable perceptivity and artistry in documenting the city’s streets. While she produced only a minimal output outside of New York, she did bring her unique gaze to Mexico during a several-month-long sojourn in 1941, where she captured everyday life in some of the capital’s poorer neighborhoods with similar honesty and acumen as she did her own city.
Equally as compelling as her photographic imagery, is the experimental 1953 documentary, In the Street, which Levitt made alongside poet and photographer Janice Loeb and writer James Agee (with whom she collaborated on a number of projects). A landmark film, it corresponds consonantly to her photographic output and is considered an important antecessor of the cinéma vérité style that emerged during the following decade.
A radical, eponymous exhibition at London’s Photographers’ Gallery in 2021,(which hosted Levitt’s first European exhibition 33 years ago) presented Levitt’s remarkable ouevre. Featuring the most important and absorbing images from throughout her career, alongside its eponym, the radical documentary, In the Street, the exhibition asserted her place as one of the most important practitioners of her time, whose influence on the medium was truly significant.
All photos © Helen Levitt