Helen Levitt, who is 89 years old and is publishing her fifth book of photographs this spring, says that out of the thousands of pictures she has taken over the decades, her favorite is from 1982.
Like many of Levitt’s photographs, it depicts a moment on a New York City street and a person at a window (not unlike a photographer gazing through a lens, come to think of it). The woman’s many-patterned outfit—herringbone hat, houndstooth check jacket, windowpane skirt—vibrates against the cab’s checkerboard stripes. The visual pun pays homage to Henri Cartier-Bresson, Levitt’s hero and inspiration, who championed the "decisive moment," as he put it, when the artist fixes a "geometric pattern without which the photograph would have been both formless and lifeless." Levitt prefers not to explain her photographs and doesn’t even title them. This particular pattern of geometry, she says, was just a "funny accident."
Levitt, who was born in Brooklyn and has always lived in New York, has been called the city’s "visual poet laureate" and "queen of the candid street photograph." The publication of a book of previously unpublished Levitt photographs, Here and There (powerHouse Books), is an occasion. Though the 110 black-and-white images cover seven decades, they share a remarkably consistent perspective on the curious, sometimes awkward encounters and occurrences that are the heartbeat of urban life. Her point of view is that of a seasoned city dweller, anonymous, uninvolved—amused.
The book, a testament to one of photography’s longest careers, is a sort of record of New York’s evolution through much of the 20th century. Young boys, one wearing knickers, stand with their backs to us, peering into a poolroom. A potbellied man puffs a stogie while a nearby steampipe bellows. Two polyester-clad cronies kibitz while mannequins gyrate in a storefront window in the background. Seen from behind, a couple recline on a lawn in Central Park—he’s hairless as well as shirtless, she’s wearing a bathing suit—in a crowd of other fresh-air seekers.
What draws people to the photographer’s work is its spontaneity and deceptive simplicity, says Bob Shamis, curator of prints and photographs at the Museum of the City of New York: "It’s as though Helen Levitt discovered a secret formula more than 60 years ago for picturing emotional time and emotional reality in lyrical images that are as straightforward as any fact."
As a teenager, Levitt aspired to be an artist, dropped out of high school, turned to photography after realizing she couldn’t draw, and took a job in the Bronx assisting a commercial photographer. She sought out the renowned documentarian Walker Evans in 1938, after seeing his photographs of Cuba, and briefly worked with him. Her first solo exhibition, in 1943, was at the Museum of Modern Art, and her photographs appeared in Edward Steichen’s landmark 1955 show, Family of Man.
Another crucial influence on her early career was James Agee, author of the seminal nonfiction work Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, on which he collaborated with Evans. Agee and Levitt teamed up on her first book of photographs, A Way of Seeing, which they finished in 1946 but was not published for 19 years; the book languished when the original publisher died and was printed only after Agee’s 1957 novel, A Death in the Family, boosted interest in his work. Agee said Levitt’s photographs were "unpretentious" and had the immediacy of folk art. They were, he said, "as beautiful, perceptive, satisfying and enduring as any lyrical work that I know."
Levitt loved to walk and favored Spanish Harlem and the Lower East Side neighborhoods, where curbsides, stoops and fire escapes were the stage upon which the "dance of life," as she put it, played out. Some critics have called Levitt’s photographs aloof or detached, but others find the same quality praiseworthy. Levitt sometimes used a device called a right-angle viewfinder, enabling her to photograph a scene not in front of the camera but off to the side, thus capturing people unawares. "Many of [Levitt’s] pictures have a miraculous quality, as if she wasn’t there at all," Maria Morris Hambourg, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, recently told National Public Radio.
Many of Levitt’s photographs depict the unself-conscious energy and grace of children; in recent interviews she has lamented the popularity of television, saying it robs neighborhoods of street life. She still takes photographs—of animals, in sync with her advocating more humane treatment of them. A very private person, she lives in a Greenwich Village apartment with her cat, Binky.
It’s impossible, of course, to look at Levitt’s decades-spanning photographic portrait of New York without thinking about September 11. Though her photographs are noted for their gritty, unsentimental quality, even the young ruffians have an innocence we might not have noticed before. Then again, kids still poke their heads out of ground-floor windows on warm days, and vendors still hawk cotton candy at street fairs. Levitt’s work—those delightful dances caught on film—seems to say: be here now.