PDN Photo of the Day

Helen Levitt’s Street Dramas

Helen Levitt (1913-2009) was a photographer with an eye for life’s wonders and disillusionments, which she captured with spirit 
and humor in her photographs of everyday life on city streets. 
One, Two, Three, More is a new collection of her earlier work, including many previously unpublished images. Levitt shot the black-and-white photographs between 1934 and 1946, mostly in working class neighborhoods of New York City.

Her interest was in the passing scenes on the streets, particularly the exuberant playfulness of barely supervised children. They seem in constant danger of poking out each other’s eyes with sticks, cracking their heads, cutting themselves on broken glass, not to mention getting run over by passing cars. They’re mostly oblivious to Levitt’s camera, and her images pull us into the inventive, rough-and-tumble world of childhood without sentimentalizing it. “[I]t’s not just that she made a documentary record of kids at play,” author and critic Geoff Dyer observes in the book’s introduction. “She also managed to capture the experience of childhood, of what it is like to be a child, when the real melts away so easily into the pretend or imaginary.”

But the unbridled joy of childhood is fleeting, as the images of the world- and work-weary adults remind us. Grown-ups appear in photographs with children and without. A few go languorously about their business, but the pace of life was slower and the Great Depression was grinding on, so a sense of idleness prevails. On stoops and sidewalks, in doorways and at street-level windows, the adults loiter and gossip, wait and watch, occasionally flirt. Despite the inaction, the best of Levitt’s images are like movie stills, charged with narrative intrigue by subtle gestures, expressions and interactions. She had an eye for the decisive moment and the quick reflexes to match, like her celebrated contemporary Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Dyer observes that Levitt made these photographs at a time when photographers were less burdened by the postmodern concern with “what is ‘real’ or with interrogating the medium and so forth. The number of things Levitt does not have to wrestle with frees her to concentrate absolutely on what is unfolding—and refolding in the endless origami of gesture—before her eyes.” That she did it so well begs the question of why she’s rarely mentioned (along with the usual cadre of men) as one of the 20th century legends of street photography.

—David Walker

Helen Levitt
One, Two, Three, More
Introduction by Geoff Dyer

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