LONDON — You must look and look, and look again. Helen Levitt’s artwork seems to spring up from such an imperative. A pioneer of street photography, Levitt worked her entire life in the same few locations: the most crowded and poorest neighborhoods of New York. She ventured into those streets, searching for the theater of everyday life, from the 1930s through the 1990s.

In the Street, a retrospective at the Photographers’ Gallery, brings together key works from across the nearly seven decades of the photographer’s practice. Like many, I’ve always been mesmerized by Levitt’s 1930s and ’40s photographs of children playing in the streets, her best-known works. It seems fitting that the artist, a former art teacher, would photograph children’s chalk drawings left behind on walls and sidewalks. A Way of Seeing, her most celebrated photo book, opens with such curious drawings.  

Helen Levitt, “New York” (1940) (© Film Documents LLC. Courtesy Galerie Thomas Zander, Cologne)

Spanish Harlem and the Bronx were to Levitt as Paris’s flea markets were to the Surrealists: an inexhaustible source of wonder. Though Surrealism’s influence on Levitt is still awaiting a detailed study, evidence of this connection is abundant in her work. Look at any of her photographs, and you’ll almost certainly find hints of the uncanny or grotesque. People are often captured in awkward poses and puzzling gestures, bending over in strange positions so that they appear folded in half or amorphous. Streets and house facades seem transformed into stages and sets, and everyday activities are defamiliarized. Kids are portrayed in all their vulnerability and cruelty, playing a constant game on the threshold between the familiar and the unknown. 

Among Levitt’s favorite subjects were children dressed up for Halloween. Their little faces covered by cheap paper masks, they inhabit a world of their own, unnoticed by grown-ups, as if they were ghosts. 

“The streets of the poor quarters of great cities are, above all, a theater and a battleground.” The opening words of In the Street (1948), the experimental 16-minute documentary Levitt filmed, together with Janice Loeb and James Agee, on the streets where she took her photographs, could be used to sum-up her entire oeuvre.

Helen Levitt, New York (1938) (© Film Documents LLC. Courtesy Galerie Thomas Zander, Cologne)
Helen Levitt, “New York” (1940) (© Film Documents LLC. Courtesy Galerie Thomas Zander, Cologne)

Quite rightly, the film is included in the exhibition to stress the importance of the artist as a filmmaker. But while I understand its relevance — it anticipates cinéma vérité by almost a decade — I resent it in the way it kills some of the mystery behind Levitt’s photos. Watching her subjects moving and acting, made alive by the film camera, places those characters back into the realm of the mundane. Between Levitt’s static and moving images there’s the same substantial difference as that between reminiscing and experiencing a present event. Memories are always much more fun, because we get to edit the facts.        

Moving images were of the utmost importance to Levitt, so much so that from 1948 to the late 1950s she focused solely on filmmaking. She returned to photography to embrace color, at a time when black and white was deemed high art and color was looked down upon, as it was considered too close to advertising and fashion photography. 

I don’t agree with the assessment of some art historians that Levitt’s color photographs are less compelling than her black and white ones. So I was pleased to find an entire floor of the exhibition dedicated to this less-known body of work. 

Helen Levitt, New York (1973) (© Film Documents LLC. Courtesy Galerie Thomas Zander, Cologne)

Things had changed between the 1940s and late ’50s. The new variables of color photography demanded a new way of approaching Levitt’s subjects. And the advent of television and air conditioning had made children’s street games vanish. Yet Levitt’s eye for idiosyncrasies had remained the same. Color steps in to reinforce her penchant for singularity.

This is apparent in “New York City (Phone Booth)” (1980), a photograph of two kids squeezed in a phone booth dominated by a corpulent woman, or in “New York” (1980), of a little girl whose body seems impossibly contorted as she crouches between the curb and the back end of a green car. 

Streets are, indeed, a theater and a battleground. You only have to look and look, and look again.

Helen Levitt: In The Streets continues at the Photographers’ Gallery (16-18 Ramillies Street, London, England) through February 13. The exhibition was curated by Walter Moser in collaboration with the Photographers’ Gallery Senior Curator Anna Dannemann. 

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Francesco Dama

Francesco Dama is a freelance art writer based in Rome, Italy. He regularly writes for several print and online publications, and wastes most of his time on Instagram.