A few weeks ago, I stumbled upon this little alcove in the Metropolitan Museum of Art that was dedicated to the photographs of Helen Levitt, a small tribute to her work in light of her death in March 2009. I had been familiar with her work in passing but I had never seen any of her photos in person. These small dark prints had such delight and spoke so honestly of the street and in the capacity for the squalor of pre-war New York to be playful and whimsical.
Helen shot on the streets of New York most of her life (excepting a series in Mexico City) and documented the neighborhoods and sidewalk dwellers with an eye towards the lighthearted frolic of daily life that contrasted with the harsh urban streets, giving her images a surrealist quality. She had abandoned her large format camera after seeing an exhibit by Cartier-Bresson and began to use the 35mm Leica, occasionally with a prism to disguise the fact that she was photographing a subject.
She was a film editor and director and worked for Buñuel, works which I have not yet seen. In later years she used color, but for my own tastes, her images from the thirties and forties remain evocative and stirring.
Powerhouse Books has published several books of hers, some of which I will be buying shortly.
From the New York Times obituary.
Changes in neighborhood life also affected her work. “I go where there’s a lot of activity,” she said. “Children used to be outside. Now the streets are empty. People are indoors looking at television or something.”