Helen Levitt

(1913 - 2009) American


Born and raised in New York, Helen Levitt has made most of her photographs in the city's streets. Her interest in photography began in 1931; she learned darkroom technique while working for a portrait photographer, and by age sixteen had decided to become a professional photographer. She was especially inspired by the photographs of Walker Evans and Henri Cartier-Bresson, both of whom became friends. Following Cartier-Bresson's lead, Levitt bought a 35-millimeter camera and settled on the subject matter she would pursue for the next forty years--community street life, especially the activities of women, children, and animals. In 1939, her images began appearing in magazines such as Fortune, U.S. Camera, Minicam, and PM. Beaumont and Nancy Newhall mounted her first solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1943. Three years later, Levitt was granted a photography fellowship by the museum. Her work found devoted advocates in Walker Evans and James Agee, the latter of whom wrote the text for A Way of Seeing (produced in the 1940s, but not published until 1965), a monograph containing many of her best-known images. In addition to the black-and-white images for which she is known, Levitt has been an active color photography since the 1950s, and her film projects include The Quiet One and In the Street, made with James Agee. Levitt received a Guggenheim Fellowship and was a National Endowment for the Arts Photography Fellow; in 1997, she received ICP's Master of Photography Infinity Award.
Celebrated for their perceptive depiction of everyday life in New York City's close-knit neighborhoods of the 1940s and 1950s, Levitt's photographs create a palpable sense of place. Her familiarity with the subjects and scenes she photographed imparts a unique candor to her observations. Although her early works are particularly beloved, her more recent work, which represents a different kind of urban environment, is equally effective.
Lisa Hostetler
Handy et al. Reflections in a Glass Eye: Works from the International Center of Photography Collection, New York: Bulfinch Press in association with the International Center of Photography, 1999, p. 221.
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