Helen Levitt, caught fleeting moments of surpassing lyricism, mystery and quiet drama on the streets of her native New York. A kind of imagemaking, that, as a NYT reviewer once wrote, “combine[s] intuition and intellect to forge sophisticated, lyrical compositions from commonplace events. Ms. Levitt captured instances of a cinematic and delightfully guileless form of street choreography that held at its heart, as William Butler Yeats put it, “the ceremony of innocence.” The late 1930s and early ’40s, when Ms. Levitt created an astonishing body of work, was a time when many noted photographers took their camera to the city’s poorer neighborhoods, where people treated their streets as their living rooms.
"There were plenty of kids playing on the street. The streets were crowded with all kinds of things going on, not just children. Everything was going on in the street in the summertime. They didn't have air-conditioning. Everybody was out on the stoops, sitting outside, on chairs."
The masterpieces in Ms. Levitt’s oeuvre are her photographs of children living their zesty, improvised lives. A white girl and a black boy twirl in a dance of their own imagining. Four girls on a sidewalk turning to stare at five floating bubbles become contrapuntal musical notes in a lovely minor key.
In Ms. Levitt’s best-known picture, three properly dressed children prepare to go trick-or-treating on Halloween 1939. Standing on the stoop outside their house, they are in almost metaphorical stages of readiness. The girl on the top step is putting on her mask; a boy near her, his mask in place, takes a graceful step down, while another boy, also masked, lounges on a lower step, coolly surveying the world.
Influenced by her personal contacts with Cartier-Bresson, Evans and James Agee she remained active as a photographer for nearly 70 years.
Helen Levitt, the Grande Dame of street photography, died in her sleep at her home in native New York on Sunday. She was 95.
Some more on Helen Levitt here (NYT), here (wiki) and here
photographs © Estate of Helen Levitt