Attention fans of street photography: The godmother of the genre is the subject of a solo show at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston. “Helen Levitt: In the Streets” features more than 40 works that Levitt, a lifelong New Yorker, made in New York City from the 1930s through the 1980s. The images capture kids at play and unguarded moments of interaction between neighbors on their stoops or sidewalks. Though her work was championed by Edward Steichen, who exhibited Levitt’s prints at the Museum of Modern Art in 1943, many obituaries noted at the time of her death in 2009 that she had been called “the most celebrated and least known photographer of her time.”
The exhibition includes some of the first images she made in the 1930s, documenting chalk drawings made by children on sidewalks. Through the 1930s and ’40s, she explored working class neighborhoods such as the Lower East Side and Spanish Harlem, shooting with a Leica outfitted with a right-angle viewfinder so she could look in one direction and take a photo in another direction, capturing her subjects unawares. She had no social agenda; she wasn’t interested in showing architecture or street scenes. Her images celebrate the vibrancy of city life, the familiar gestures and foibles of ordinary people going about their lives, and the energy and imagination of children free to roam, play and create fantastic games.
The show also includes her charming 1948 short film, In the Street, which brings her images to life. Recorded without sound but set to a lively and poignant piano score, it’s a memento of a time kids were free to play with minimal adult supervision, and the sidewalk became their playground and, occasionally, battleground.
Also on view are some of the lesser-known color images that Levitt made after she won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1959. The hues in the images add a dose of levity, and show the wit and humor she brought to her observations of New York life. —Holly Stuart Hughes