Helen Levitt (1913-2009) spent sixty years in the streets of New York, photographing what she saw. Associated early in her career with contemporary Walker Evans, Levitt has been called “the most celebrated and least known photographer of her time.” The New York Times, meanwhile, describes her work as catching “fleeting moments of surpassing lyricism, mystery and quiet drama on the streets of her native New York.”Now, with the release of One, Two, Three, More published by PowerHouse Books and with accompanying text by Geoff Dyer, her work is getting a second chance at mainstream appreciation.
“…the aesthetic is in reality itself.”
For those of us jaded with street photography–having seen it devolve from a unique style to often no more than a lexical cover for a lack of preparation–Levitt’s work provides a glimpse back to a time when strolling with a camera around one’s neck was considered highly unusual.One is immediately struck, as a review in the NYRB by Joel Smith puts it, by Levitt’s ability to “marry grace with awkwardness” in the figures of her images. More than aesthetic idiosyncrasy, this is a result of her blending rare talent with a down-to-earth approach to her subjects. Regarding her own method of street photography, Levitt once described it modestly as “like collecting. When you see something you grab it.”
“…life happened in the streets.”
Her choice of setting, meanwhile–the impoverished inner city–gives off the impression that Levitt is a photographer with high-flown ideals trying to expose some deeper truth about society and those it leaves behind. In fact, she makes no such claims on behalf of her work. As Mr. Smith notes, Levitt explained that “she photographed in poor neighborhoods because that’s where life happened in the streets.” Her frequent capturing of kids, similarly, was due to the fact that they “were simply the people she found out and about.” Working at a time when conceptual art was just coming to the fore, Levitt reminded artists that a good concept doesn’t always equate to good art, and vice versa.In her frequent diversions from what we would popularly call “style,” Levitt’s work serves as notice in the Instagram age. She excelled, not because of her ideas or her ability to make each image correspond to some holy grail of technical purity, but because she was able to capture life as it is, awkwardness intact. “All I can say about the work I do,” Levitt once wrote, “is that the aesthetic is in reality itself.” Cop the book here for more stunning black and whites.