Go “In the Street” With Helen Levitt, the Legendary Poet-Photographer Who Often Cracks Wise

Photo: Helen Levitt, New York, 1939

Helen Levitt (1913-2009) never liked to talk about her work. She was notorious for giving interviewers a tough time on those rare occasions she deigned to speak with them. An old school New Yorker hailing for Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, Levitt had a no-nonsense approach to the craft, never falling for the trappings of status that have come to the medium in recent decades.

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“Since I’m inarticulate, I express myself with images,” Levitt has said, letting her work do the talking since appearing in the Museum of Modern Art’s inaugural photography show in 1939. By 1943, she was given her first solo show, establishing Levitt as one of the preeminent street photographers of the century.

Helen Levitt, New York,c.1945

Helen Levitt, New York,c.1945

In 1948, she teamed up with writer James Agee to produce In the Street, a 16-minute, silent, black and white documentary film shot in the Spanish Harlem section of New York City in the 1940s. Using a small, hidden 16 mm film camera, they recorded scenes of street life, which Levitt then edited and added a piano track composed and performed by Arthur Kleiner.

In 1987, Levitt re-used the title for her book with Duke University Press, which focused on the chalk drawings and street scenes of children made between 1938 and 1948. After a couple of decades out of the public eye, Levitt’s return was nothing short of spectacular. While the world she had documented in the 1940s had long since disappeared, the spirit of the era remained in the take-no-prisoners ethic of the people.

Helen Levitt, New York, c.1940

Helen Levitt, New York, c.1940

Levitt’s New York told it like it was. “The Lady in this House is Nuts,” one chalk message warned. “Ruby loves Max but Max hates Ruby,” another advertised. Her photographs captured a world where social media was analogue. Her photographs reveal the ingenuity of childhood finding its way amidst the rough and tumble landscape where they dared to play.

In celebration of the world that was, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston presents Helen Levitt: In the Street, on view now through January 2, 2017. The exhibition features 40 photographs made between the late 1930s and the mid-1970s, chronicling life around the city. Levitt captured the daily spectacle of life that makes everything in New York so grand, the sense of theatricality and drama that pervades the concrete sidewalks.

Helen Levitt, New York, 1971

Helen Levitt, New York, 1971

Levitt understood, “It would be mistaken to suppose that any of the best photography is come at by intellection; it is like all art, essentially the result of an intuitive process, drawing on all that the artist is rather than on anything he thinks, far less theorizes about.”

Her gift for using her senses enabled her to create a body of work take at what Henri Cartier-Bresson described as “the decisive moment.” But Levitt’s photographs delve into the emotional realms, the spaces of joy and sadness, pride and pleasure, with a sprinkling of pure silliness. Though the world of Helen Levitt has come and gone, the human condition that she documented speaks loud and clear, enveloping us with its embrace while whispering the magic words, “The more things change, the more they remain the same.”

Helen Levitt, New York, 1939-40

Helen Levitt, New York, 1939-40

All photos: © Helen Levitt, courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts Houston.

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.