Photos: Helen Levitt
By Mary Rourke
Helen Levitt, who pioneered street photography in the United States in the 1930s, taking pictures of small, poignant dramas with the help of an inconspicuous Leica camera, died Sunday at her apartment in New York City. She was 95. The cause was respiratory failure, according to Marvin Hoshino, a longtime friend. Using East Harlem and the Lower East Side of New York City as frequent settings, Levitt caught the humor, frustration and delight of everyday life, particularly among the city’s poor. She was quick to recognize an extraordinary scene and quick to react.
“Helen was one of the first American photographers to identify street photography as potentially an art form,” said Sandra Phillips, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art senior curator of photography. “She wasn’t a photojournalist, she was more like a poet.” Levitt bought a used Leica in 1936 and took to the city streets, making children her most frequent subjects. Her images of young girls following soap bubbles down a street, boys waltzing on the sidewalk and laughing at themselves, children playing on the narrow ledge above a doorway like a Grecian frieze come to life, capture the sense of discovery that is part of childhood.
“There is a sweetness to Levitt’s work, but the subjects are serious,” Arthur Ollman, the former director of the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego said in a 2004 interview with The Times. “She recognized real, formative moments in a child’s life. She saw the dignity of children, they were not strange ‘other’ beings to her.” Her pictures of white chalk drawings are a historical record of the innocence of children at play. One of them shows a drawing of a bicycle that is so carefully detailed it suggests a wish to own such a marvelous thing. Another shows neat, concentric circles accompanied by a message: “Button to Secret Passage. Press.” “People think I love children, but I don’t,” Levitt said in a 2001 interview with the New Yorker magazine.
“Not more than the next person. It was just that children were out in the street.” In the 1930s, she said, a lot of living went on in public places. “That was before television and air-conditioning,” Levitt told the Chicago Tribune in 2003. “People would be outside, and if you just waited long enough they forgot about you.” She set her lens focus and waited. The results were like “fragments of a play whose first and last acts are elsewhere,” New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik said in the forward to Levitt’s book “Here and There” (2002). From the start of her career Levitt moved among the greatest talents in her business. She became friends with Walker Evans and Henri Cartier-Bresson in the 1930s.
Both of them helped her develop her style. She learned by looking at the photographs of Cartier-Bresson, who lived in New York City in the mid-1930s. He took a photograph only when the timing was right — “the decisive moment.” Levitt credited him with showing her how both luck and planning played a part in the sort of images she wanted to create. Levitt also was briefly influenced by a trend among talented young photographers to work for the Farm Security Administration and other government agencies in the New Deal, taking pictures of poverty-stricken farmers and mountain people. But she was not a social reformer. “I never intend to make statements in my pictures,” she told the Chicago Tribune in 2003. “People say, ‘What does this or that mean?’ I don’t have a good answer for them. You see what you see.”