Helen Levitt

1913-2009

Helen Levitt was one of the first American photographers to identify street photography as an art form. She pioneered street photography in the United States in the 1930s, taking pictures of everyday life and small dramas with an inconspicuous camera. Levitt photographed the city’s poor and working class people of East Harlem and Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

Children were her most frequent subjects as they played on sidewalks or in doorways. Her pictures of white chalk drawings are a record of children at play. She chose to photograph children not because she loved them so much but because they were always out in the street. She said that in the 1930s there was a lot of living in public places because there was no television or air-conditioning. “People would be outside, and if you just waited long enough they forgot about you.”

At the start of her career in the 1930s, Levitt became friends with Walker Evans and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Both of them helped her develop her style. From the mid-1930s Levitt and Evans shared a darkroom and roamed the New York subways together. He showed her how to use a right-angle viewfinder to trick her subjects into thinking that she was not aiming at them.

She made a number of films with Luis Bunel and documentaries with James Agee. She had her first museum exhibition in 1943 at MoMA.  Her work has been shown at museums and photographic exhibits all over the country.  She was in her 80s when she received the Master of Photography Award given by the International Center of Photography in New York in 1997.

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