Helen Levitt Captures the Theatre of New York’s Street Life

At London’s Photographers’ Gallery, a retrospective of the US artist is an intimate yet unsentimental look into a bygone era

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BY Julie Hrischeva in Exhibition Reviews , UK Reviews | 14 NOV 21

Helen Levitt’s uncanny scenes of interwar New York feature children in ghoulish homemade masks, spectral hands with pointed fingers emerging from curtains and the disembodied legs of youths peeping out from beneath a crate beside a tenement wall.

A Brooklyn native, Levitt gained early recognition for her documentary work in the Bronx and Harlem, setting a tone at once intimate yet unsentimental, cut with a keen, absurdist, observational humour. Her immersion in the childhood world of the feral and bizarre aligns her so closely with the child’s perspective that, on occasion, adults’ heads are blithely cropped out of the frame. There is a volatile, disquieting undercurrent to these scenes. Miniature adults in shabby suits smoke cigarettes, mimicking the poses of grownups and the violence of gangster movies in their games. Levitt’s fascination with childhood finds more joyful recognition in her photograph New York (Button to Secret Passage) (c.1940) of a graffiti portal chalked on a wall that invites passers-by to enter an imaginary universe.

Helen Levitt
Helen Levitt, New York, 1940. Courtesy: © Film Documents LLC, Galerie Thomas Zander, Cologne and The Photographers’ Gallery, London.

Surreal gestures accentuate the element of chance inherent in Levitt’s interactions with her subjects – some of whom train a lens back on the photographer, while others perform exuberantly for the camera. Levitt moves through these familiar streets with the modernist autonomy of Henri Cartier-Bresson. One ostensibly candid photograph, New York (1945), shows interlocking figures on a front stoop, some with their backs turned, others looking nobly into the distance. The adjacent contact sheet provides a revealing dissection of the image through a series of what Cartier-Bresson referred to as ‘decisive moments’: from the first, truly candid shot to the moment when the subjects realise they are being photographed, to the final scene, in which the individuals pose in harmonious faux-naturalism.

Helen Levitt
Helen Levitt, New York, 1940. Courtesy: © Film Documents LLC, Galerie Thomas Zander, Cologne and The Photographers’ Gallery, London.

Levitt’s contact sheets are a real highlight of The Photographers’ Gallery’s current retrospective, ‘In the Street’. They are a precursor to the artist’s first venture into documentary filmmaking, In the Street (1945–46), alongside Janice Loeb and writer James Agee. The film – a kind of proto cinema verité informed by Levitt’s diverse influences, from the Kino-Pravda newsreels of 1920s Russia to slapstick comedy – reveals the considered structure behind seemingly off-the-cuff image sequences, also witnessed in her photo book, A Way of Seeing (1965).

Hinting at her association with the socially conscious Photo League co-operative, poverty is the silent actor in Levitt’s theatre of the street, where figures contort not just in play, but perhaps also out of hunger or insanity. In an inversion of her mentor Walker Evans’s detached yet socially motivated Farm Security Administration photographs (1935–38), Levitt’s images lack specificity: her captions are minimal, her subjects remain anonymous and yet, through her alignment with them, are instilled with agency and rendered her equals. Levitt is fully invested in her community and its every odd, searingly human pose and exchange.

Helen Levitt
Helen Levitt, New York, 1973. Courtesy: © Film Documents LLC, Galerie Thomas Zander, Cologne and The Photographers’ Gallery, London.

The exhibition concludes with Levitt’s work in colour. These photographs from the 1970s are formally brilliant yet undermined by a certain malaise. This inertia could be read in relation to the increasingly individualistic culture that they depict, with an accompanying sense of urban disconnection that has contemporary resonance. Levitt is often hailed as a forerunner of the decade’s new documentarians. Yet, the hostile gaze that Garry Winogrand and Diane Arbus frequently cast over their native city seems to have little in common with Levitt’s late work which, even when shorn of a certain joy and playfulness, maintains true affection for her fellow New Yorkers. 

‘Helen Levitt: In the Street’ is on display at The Photographers’ Gallery, London, UK, until 13 February 2022.
 

Main image: Helen Levitt, New York, 1980. Courtesy: © Film Documents LLC, Galerie Thomas Zander, Cologne and The Photographers’ Gallery, London. 
 

Julie Hrischeva is the Editor, Art and Architecture at Yale University Press, London. 

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