Since I’m inarticulate, I express myself with images. —Helen Levitt
Born on August 31, 1913 in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, New York, Helen Levitt was once called (by David Strauss in a 1997 Artforum International article) “the most celebrated and least known photographer of her time.” Perhaps this lack of recognition stems from Levitt’s tendency to be an “intensely private” person who did not seek fame and rarely gave interviews. Perhaps it was because she did not wish to assign “social meaning” to her photographs—a lesson she learned after meeting photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson—that a photograph could “stand up by itself.”
Leaving high school in her senior year, Levitt began working in 1931 for the commercial portrait photographer J. Florian Mitchell, who was known to the family. “I helped in darkroom printing and developing,” she said. “My salary was six bucks a week.” It was during this time that she taught herself photography.
Levitt was influenced by the photographic styles of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans, and Ben Shahn. She met and accompanied Cartier-Bresson on a photographic shoot of the Brooklyn waterfront in 1935 and the following year, bought a second hand Leica, the camera Cartier-Bresson preferred. Between 1938-39, Levitt was mentored by and worked with Walker Evans but she gave more credit to photographer Ben Shahn and his gritty photos of New York of the 1930s.
Levitt found success early on, and in July 1939, her work was published in Fortune magazine. In 1940, her Halloween photograph was included in the inaugural exhibition at Museum of Modern Art as part of its new photography section. In 1943, Levitt had her first solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (Helen Levitt: Photographs of Children March 10-April 18).
In a rare interview in 2001 for NPR, Levitt talked about her street photography: “It was a very good neighbourhood for taking pictures in those days, because that was before television, there was a lot happening. And then the older people would sometimes be sitting out on the stoops because of the heat. They didn’t have air conditioning in those days. It was, don’t forget, in the late ’30s. So those neighbourhoods were very active.” (listen to/read the interview)
Levitt also worked in film and spent most of her time from 1949-59 as a full-time film editor and director. Notably, during this period, she worked on two documentary films, In the Street with friend and painter Janice Loeb and the writer James Agee, and The Quiet One (1948). The Quiet One writers, Sidney Meyers, Loeb, and Levitt, were nominated for the Best Writing, Story and Screenplay Academy Award. The film was also nominated for Best Documentary Feature. The National Board of Review named it the second best film of 1949. Levitt continued working in film making for almost twenty-five years.
When Levitt returned to photography in 1959, she was among the first photographers to work in colour. She received Guggenheim fellowships in 1959 and 1960 for these projects. Sadly, a great deal of Levitt’s early colour work was stolen from her New York apartment in the late 1960s.
Comprehensive surveys of Levitt’s work were held at the Sidney Janis Gallery in New York in 1980 and at the Laurence Miller Gallery in 1987. However, it was not until 1991 that she gained significant recognition when the first national retrospective of her work at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art was held. The exhibition showed at other major museums including the International Center for Photography, New York (1997), and the Centre National la Photographie, Paris (2001). In 2007, Helen Levitt: Un Art de l’accident poetique, opened at the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson in Paris. In 2008, Levitt was the recipient of the Spectrum International Photography Prize which included a major retrospective at the Sprengel Museum in Hannover, Germany. Also in the fall of 2008, a major retrospective was held at FOAM Museum in Amsterdam. In that same year, Levitt received the Francis Greenburger award for excellence in the arts.
On March 29, 2009, Helen Levitt died in her sleep at the age of 95.
James Agee (1909-1955), a good friend of Levitt, wrote “Helen Levitt’s photographs seem to me as beautiful, perceptive, satisfying, and enduring as any lyrical work that I know. In their general quality and coherence, moreover, the photographs as a whole body, as a book, seem to me to combine into a unified view of the world, an uninsistent but irrefutable manifesto of a way of seeing, and in a gentle and wholly unpretentious way, a major poetic work.“
All images copyright © The Estate of Helen Levitt