Helen Levitt, August 21st, 1913 - March 29th, 2009, is a photographer known mostly for her street photography all through New York City. She has often been known to be “the most celebrated and least known photographer of her time”. Levitt grew up in Brooklyn, New York with her Russian-Jewish, immigrant father who ran a whole-sale knit good market and her mother who was a bookkeeper before getting married.
In 1931, Levitt dropped out of high school and began working for commercial portrait photographer,
J. Florian Mitchell. It is here that she learned to develop photos in the dark room and realized that she wanted to do something in the arts, but claimed she “could not draw”. When she said Henri Cartier-Bresson’s work for the first time, it was the first time she had seen photography portrayed as an art in itself. As her desire to take photographs began to grow, she started practicing by taking portraits of her mothers friends on a Voigtländer camera.
In the mid-1930’s, Helen Levitt was teaching art classes to children when she became interested in the chalk drawings the kids were creating. As a result of this, she purchased a Leica camera and began photographing the chalk art and the children that created them. These photos ultimately led her to her first publication, “In the Street: chalk drawings and messages”. Over time, Levitt broadened her horizons and began photographing in East Harlem, the Garment District and on the Lower East side. Her work from this time was first published in Fortune Magazines July 1939 issue.
In 1946, Levitt received her first grant from the Museum of Modern Art and later received two grants from the Guggenheim Foundation for her work regarding color film. In 1965, she published first major collection, “A Way of Seeing”. Unfortunately, in 1970, Levitt’s apartment was robbed and most of her work was stolen. The photos that were left and the ones she took in following years can all be seen in her book, “Slide Show: The Color Photographs of Helen Levitt”.
The reason I love Helen Levit’s work so much is that none of it feels staged, it all feels so incredibly natural. In a society, now, where there seldom are children playing in the streets and outside, her photographs bring a sense of nostalgia to everyone who views her work. When you see her photos of the children in Brooklyn and Harlem, you cant help but feel a little more at ease with the world. To me, her photos bring a sense of peacefulness to the streets of New York. Her photographs also mix seriousness with silliness so perfectly and I think that is something that can be hard to do so I really respect that.
All work courteous of Helen Levitt