© ESTATE OF HELEN LEVITT/LAURENCE MILLER GALLERY
Helen Levitt’s famous photographs of children colonizing the curbs of Harlem and the Lower East Side during World War II–still images saturated with movement, banter and drama–are almost too easy to appreciate. Is it not overly endearing, somehow, that she captured a scrum of little boys in dark overcoats and penciled mustaches waltzing together on an avenue sparsely populated by stately and slender couples off in the distance? Looking at the image, it is hard not to smile. Other photographs, ones that fascinate or disturb more than delight, also engage our very personal interest: you look into these long-departed New Yorkers’ faces, with their instantly readable moods, as if they were your own. Their direct gazes seem to match Levitt’s reluctance to judge them. In almost all of her work, she managed to fix in time unrepeatable encounters on the city’s streets while outrunning the often moralizing limits of the documentary mode–a disinterested way of seeing that could lead to her classification, usually in the penultimate paragraph of chapters on street photography, as a kind of charming footnote complicating both the gravity of Walker Evans and the principled artlessness of Robert Frank and his influential disciples.
In her early 20s (having dropped out of high school in 1930, one semester shy of graduating), Levitt frequented the Photo League without becoming a member. Though acquainted with Henri Cartier-Bresson and accustomed to collaborating with Evans and James Agee, she never belonged to a circle that might have pressed her to use the medium to promote a message. If a consistent meaning emerges from her images, it is idiosyncratic, fused with the meaning of her mortal subjects and easy to mistake as being not wholly serious and certainly not cerebral. What her photos showed–even in the early 1940s, when a photographer roaming a hardscrabble town or a desolate city block might be expected to favor scenes of dignity and endurance, in the socially conscious vein of the Farm Security Administration–was how wide a range of human expressiveness could be compressed into small black-and-white snapshots.
Levitt died this past March at the age of 95, and the Laurence Miller Gallery on Fifty-seventh Street, which has represented her work for twenty-two years, revamped a spring exhibition that had been planned with her help into one memorializing her lifework. Some of the iconic street scenes and images of children were on the walls, but so too were stolen glimpses of weary subway riders, captured with a hidden camera that Levitt used with Walker Evans on underground safaris between 1938 and 1941. There were also mid-sidewalk portraits of dames and dandies looking like castoffs from a Diane Arbus shoot; snapshots of chalk drawings, like ancient hieroglyphs, made by children on the streets; and color photographs from the second half of her career depicting with rich, repeating palettes a drab and dilapidated New York that was already a ruin in the making. In one of the classic children shots (dated “c. 1940,” as nearly all of them are), three girls knotted together on the sidewalk push one another around, their hostilities undercut by a smaller boy who has hoisted up the skirt of one girl to peek at her undies. Levitt’s friend James Agee wrote of the image in an essay of 1946: “the little boy…still acts with the angelic directness of his world at its most free; the little girls…embody a later, sadder stage.”