Artist Biography: Helen Levitt (1913-2009)
“Sarah Boxer (interviewer): Do you prefer black and white or colour?
Helen Levitt: Whatever roll of film I have, that's what I'll shoot.”
Helen Levitt had been living in the same brick building in New York’s Greenwich Village for over 35 years when she died in 2009. Among the objects in her apartment were two boxes: one labelled “Nothing good” and the other marked “Here and There”. This second box contained the pictures that came out well.
Born in Brooklyn in 1913, Levitt portrayed day-to-day life on the streets of New York. As a self-taught photographer, she learned from exhibitions, books and conversations with other photographers, especially her mentor Walker Evans. Levitt constructed a daily chronicle of her city.
After dropping out of high school, she worked in a photographer’s studio in the Bronx. Inspired by Cartier-Bresson’s work, she bought a Leica and it became her inseparable ally. Unlike her contemporaries and documentary photographers, Levitt simply set out to create a testimony of reality. Her work reflects life on the street, the modern agora or gathering place. At a time when there was no television (especially in poorer neighbourhoods) and no air conditioning, the street was an extension of the living room. In his foreword to A Way of Seeing, James Agee defined her work as “lyrical photographs”. Levitt’s streets and children remind us of the horizon. This book was a milestone in her career. Completed in 1946 but not published until nearly 20 years later, in 1965, it is a vital and paradigmatic testament to her photographic vision.
In addition to pursuing a career as a photographer, Levitt was also a highly respected professional cinematographer. Her documentary about a delinquent boy, The Quiet One, won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and two Oscar nominations: one for her as best screenwriter and one for the film as best documentary. Fascinated by the world of filmmaking, she lived in Hollywood during the 1950s and 60s but never forgot photography, and in her mind she never left the streets of New York.
In 1997 she was presented with the Master of Photography Award by the International Center of Photography and the Outstanding Achievement in Humanistic Photography. That same year, at the ripe old age of 84, she exhibited her work at DOCUMENTA in Kassel.
But it had all begun in the 1930s, walking the streets of New York with her Leica. By 1946 she had earned a grant from the MoMA, three years after Edward Steichen curated her first exhibition at that museum under the title Helen Levitt: Photographs of Children.
Steichen was one of her greatest advocates: in 1955 he included her in his show The Family of Man. Levitt’s work was also featured in the colossal 1976 show One Hundred Master Photographs. After that, there were very few exhibitions of her work until the 1990s, when she was rescued from relative oblivion.
In 1992 the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of New York co-organised a major retrospective of her work. But Levitt shunned publicity: she was a shy woman of few words, with an outsider’s soul. In an interview by Sarah Boxer for the New York Times, published in 2004, the following exchange occurred: “You don’t like talking, do you?” (Boxer); “No, I sure don’t,” (Levitt).
In the spring of 2008 the Sprengel Museum in Hannover hosted one of the most comprehensive exhibitions of her work ever held.
Fundacion MAPFRE owns twelve gelatine silver prints by the artist, all of them part of some of her most important nooks, such as A way of Seeing (1965), Helen Levitt (2008) –with an essay by Walker Evans- and Crosstown (2001).
Once we start seeing, we can’t stop looking. Once we have discovered that gift, there is no going back. Helen Levitt continued to take photographs until the day she died.