Helen Levitt (1913-2009) – Espace Van Gogh (part of Rereading – Photography Revisited)
Levitt was inspired by HCB and used a 35mm camera in East Harlem and the Bronx to revolutionise traditional reportage photography. This was different from the sociopolitical documentary that had come before and more about artistic depiction, influenced by surrealism which had adopted ‘the urban’ as a central subject and by the silent film ‘genre’. Levitt looked for humorous or enigmatic elements in the everyday and the results can be eerie and dark. Her work was described at the time as “The Art of the Poetic Accident”.
She was fascinated by writing and drawings on the city walls when graffiti was considered to be an expression of the unconscious – a type of primitive art. Possibly an inspiration for Roger Ballen, certainly Diane Arbus and maybe Alex Webb?
The wall text in the Espace explained that Levitt “shows the street as a stage for children and adults defined by vital and eccentric gestures. This is why her subjects do not strike us as powerless and alienated from their surroundings but as protagonists who have successfully appropriated their urban space.”
Levitt cropped her photographs to focus on the element that had caught her interest. This could change the meaning. She would also usually delete images which broke the fourth wall (like many photographers including Martin Parr as I recently learned).
Her motifs included children playing often with a surrealist twist and in some cases moments of violence. She often captured scenes of children enacting conflicts as reporting on WW2 permeated society and being extremely destructive but seemingly oblivious to consumerism. She seemed to be quite relaxed about angles and uprights and privileged the dynamism of a scene over the formal aspects.
Like Walker Evans – a friend – Levitt took candid photos on the subway with a hidden camera. The appeal was for the subjects not to feel observed and for there to be a high degree of chance involved.
In 1959 she adopted colour and was a pioneer at the time, using it to create new meanings and space within the composition. And then was overshadowed by Eggleston, Meyerowitz and Shore because of, you know, the patriarchy.
The video of everyday life in NYC (In the Street, 1945/46) was mesmerising and a highlight of the show, with clear influences from the exaggerated gestures common in silent movies. It was displayed in the middle of the room and could be viewed from either side. According to the wall blurb, it is considered to be ‘an essential forerunner’ to the cinéma vérité which emerged in the 1960s.
This was my favourite image from the exhibition:
- I love the idea of viewing the city landscape as a stage. That feels a lot less suspect than stalking for street photography gems. We shouldn’t think of it as shady.
- There were some strong examples of great subject = inevitably great images vs great photographer = amazing images from ordinary life. Having extraordinary subject matter is slightly cheating (side-eye at Arbus!) but Levitt proves her genius again and again. Cool little kids smoking = great subject matter but the framing and captured expressions are perfect.