A Photographer’s Portrait of the Theater of the Streets

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London — You have to see, see, and see again. Helen Levitt’s artwork seems to have come from such an order. Street photography pioneer Levitt spent his life in the same few places in New York’s busiest and poorest areas. From the 1930s to the 1990s, she searched for theaters in her daily life and stepped into those streets.

On the streetThe Photographers Gallery’s retrospective exhibition summarizes the major works of the photographer’s practice over nearly 70 years. Like many, I’ve always been fascinated by the pictures of Levitt’s 1930s and 40s, children playing on the streets, her most famous work. It seems appropriate for an artist who was a former art teacher to take pictures of children’s chalk paintings left on the walls and sidewalks. ViewHer most famous photo book begins with such a strange painting.

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

Just as the flea market in Paris was directed to Surrealism, Harlem and Bronx in Spain were directed to Levitt. The impact of Surrealism on Levitt is still awaiting further study, but evidence of this relationship is plentiful in her work. If you look at her picture, you’ll almost certainly find a spooky or grotesque hint. People are often caught in awkward poses and mysterious gestures, bending in strange positions and folding in half or appearing amorphous. The facades of streets and houses appear to be transformed into stages and sets, and daily activities are unfamiliar. Children are portrayed with all their vulnerabilities and cruelty, playing constant games on the threshold between the familiar and the unknown.

One of Levitt’s favorite themes was kids dressed up for Halloween. Their little faces, covered with cheap paper masks, live in their own world, unnoticed by adults, as if they were ghosts.

“The streets of the poor districts of big cities are, above all, theaters and battlefields.” On the street (1948), an experimental 16-minute documentary Levitt taken with Janice Loeb and James Agee on the street she took a picture of could be used to summarize her entire work. rice field.

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

Not surprisingly, this film is included in the exhibition to emphasize the importance of the artist as a filmmaker. But I understand the relevance (Cinéma vérite expects it to be almost 10 years), but I’m resentful at how to kill some of the mysteries behind Levitt’s photographs. As her subject moves, acts, and looks alive with a film camera, those characters return to the mundane realm. There are the same substantive differences between Levitt stills and videos as remembering or experiencing current events. Memories are always much more fun because you can edit the facts.

Video was so important to Levitt that she was devoted to filmmaking from 1948 to the late 1950s. She returned to her photo to accept her color. At that time, black and white was considered high art, and colors were considered too close to advertising and fashion photography, so they were looked down on.

I disagree with some art historians’ assessment that Levitt’s color photography is less convincing than her black-and-white photography. So I was happy to find the entire floor of the exhibition dedicated to this lesser-known series of works.

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

Things changed from the 1940s to the late 1950s. New variables in color photography demanded a new way of approaching Levitt’s subject. And the advent of television and air conditioning has wiped out children’s street games. Still, Levitt’s eyes on specificity remained the same. Color intervenes to reinforce her tendency towards singularities.

This is a picture of a little girl in New York City (phone booth) (1980), two children squeezed in a phone booth dominated by a plump woman, or in New York (1980). It is clear in. She is incredibly distorted as she crouches between her curb and the rear edge of the green car.

The street is certainly a theater and a battlefield. You just have to look, look, and look again.

Helen Levitt: On the street It will continue until February 13th at the Photographers Gallery (16-18 Ramies Street, London, UK). The exhibition was curated by Walter Moser in collaboration with Anna Dunneman, Senior Curator of the Photographers Gallery.

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