August 31 1913 - March 29 2009
Place of Birth:
New York City
Multimedia (electronic, digital, video, film), Photography
Helen Levitt’s work contributed to the creation of a new style of photography in the 1930s and 1940s. The style did not intend to spark social reform, but rather to objectively observe everyday life in a manner infused with wit and humor. Levitt often used a right-angle viewfinder that allowed her to observe her subjects from short distances without being noticed. Her photography documents the fleeting moments of daily life on fire escapes, front stoops, or vacant lots in ethnic and working-class neighborhoods such as the Lower East Side and Spanish Harlem. Levitt focused specifically on urban children conversing and cavorting with one another, a subject she revisited throughout her career. With subjects unaware of the camera lens, she captured unexpected moments and uninhibited expressions from her subjects.
By the time of Levitt’s birth in 1913, her family had established a comfortable middle-class lifestyle in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. Her father, a Russian-Jewish immigrant, founded a wholesale knit-goods company where her American-born mother temporarily served as the bookkeeper. In hopes of pursuing a career as an artist, Levitt dropped out of high school before her senior year and turned to photography. At the age of eighteen, she began as an assistant to a Bronx commercial photographer. Her approach to, and opinion of, the medium changed after visiting a local gallery exhibition in the early thirties of French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson’s work. After four years as a commercial photographer, she realized the potential of photography as an art form in its own right.
In 1935 Levitt met future friend and mentor Cartier-Bresson. A year later, she purchased a used hand-held Leica camera and began recording life on the streets of Manhattan. After accumulating a sizable body of work, she approached Walker Evans, another well-known photographer active in New York at the time. Delighted with what he saw, Evans accepted Levitt as his student and formally trained her that following year. He helped solidify Levitt’s detached method of capturing the subject, a method which she used throughout her career.
In the mid-1940s Levitt entered new territory—the film industry—by assuming roles such as a film editor and camera operator. She initially collaborated with friends, the art historian Janice Loeb and the writer James Agee, on a project titled In the Street, a fourteen-minute cinematic version of Levitt’s earlier photographs shot with hidden video cameras. After ten years concentrating on motion pictures, Levitt returned to still photography in 1959. With the assistance of a Guggenheim Fellowship, she not only renewed her earlier efforts to document urban youths in the streets. Levitt also experimented with color photography, which at the time was a medium typically viewed as more suitable for commercial work. Unfortunately, few photographs from this time period are extant, due to a theft of the developed negatives and film in the early 1970s. In the last decades of her life, Levitt resumed black-and-white photography and to the Lower East Side. She also expanded her repertoire by exploring other urban areas such as the Garment District and the East Village and incorporated older generations into the scenes.
Along with two Guggenheim Fellowships, Levitt received many accolades throughout her life, including the 2009 SPECTRUM International Prize for Photography and the 1997 Master of Photography, Infinity Award for Excellence in Photography. Her work is in national collections such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Museum of Modern Art; the Art Institute of Chicago; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Levitt, who died in 2009, left behind a long legacy of photographing the human condition seen on the streets of New York in a poetic rather than prosaic fashion.
Place(s) of Residence:
New York City
New Utrecht High School, New York, NY, USA
Studio of Walker Evans (1938-1939)
Art Students’ League, New York, NY, USA (1956-1957)
Related Visual Artists:
Assistant to J. Florian Mitchell,
Collaborated with Sidney Meyers,
Friend of Alma Agee,
Friend of and influenced by Henri Cartier-Bresson,
Friend of and collaborated with James Agee,
Friend of and collaborated with Luis Buñuel,
Friend of, sister-in-law of and collaborated with Janice Loeb,
Friend and student of Walker Evans
Fellowships, grants and awards:
SPECTRUM International Prize for Photography, Stiftung Niedersachsen (Foundation of Lower Saxony), Hannover, Germany (2008)
Infinity Award for Excellence in Photography (Master of Photography), International Center for Photography, New York, NY, USA (1997)
John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, New York, NY, USA (1959; renewed 1960)
American Photographs at $10, Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, USA (1941)
Defining Eye: Women Photographers of the 20th Century
A History of Women Photographers
Stiftung Niedersachsen’s SPECTRUM International Prize for Photograph: Helen Levitt, Sprengel Museum Hannover, Hannover, Germany (2008);
Helen Levitt: Crosstown, International Center of Photography, New York, NY, USA (1997);
Helen Levitt, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, (traveling), San Francisco, CA, USA (1991)