“All I can say about the work I try to do,
is that the aesthetic is in reality itself.” – Helen Levitt
The Photographers’ Gallery (London) presents an extensive retrospective of work by the enigmatic American photographer Helen Levitt. Though not always credited as such, 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’.
Curated by Walter Moser in collaboration with TPG’s Senior Curator, Anna Dannemann, and co-produced by The Albertina Museum, Vienna, and The Photographers’ Gallery, (which hosted Levitt’s first European exhibition 33 years ago) this radical exhibition will feature some of the most compelling images from her extensive oeuvre.
Spanning five decades of her remarkable career, it encompasses a broad selection of her New York street photography: from her early monochrome works through to her wonderfully compelling color images from the 1970s and 80s. In addition, it will feature some of her lesser-known inceptions: her early photographs of pavement chalk drawings; her portrayals of life in some of Mexico City’s poorer neighborhoods, which she captured during a several-month long sojourn in 1941 (the only body of work captured outside her home city) and the exhibition’s eponym, In the Street, the experimental 1953 documentary she made alongside poet and photographer Janice Loeb, and writer James Agee (with whom she collaborated on a number of projects) which corresponds consonantly to her photographic output and is considered an important antecessor of the cinéma vérité style that emerged during the following decade.
Helen Levitt: In The Street is on display at The Photographers’ Gallery, London from 15 October 2021.
The exhibition opens alongside Helen Cammock: Concrete Feathers and Porcelain Tacks, a new film and installation project from the Turner Prize-nominated artist Helen Cammock.
All photos © Helen Levitt