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Clarence Helen Levitt

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Helen Levitt
Modern Photographer
American, (August 31, 1913–March 29, 2009)
Born in 1913, in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, Helen Levitt grew up with a fascination for sounds, dance, books, and foreign films. Finding high school far from stimulating, she dropped out her senior year and began work with a portrait photographer in the Bronx from whom she learned the basic techniques of the camera and darkroom. Although she spent her four years there simply performing routine darkroom procedures, this apprenticeship opened her eyes to the possibility of becoming a professional photographer. However, she soon abandoned this path, as she was a profoundly private person who took photos strictly for her own pleasure.

Levitt was strongly impressed by the images of Henri Cartier-Bresson, a famous French photographer popularly known as the discoverer of the “decisive moment,” a translation of the French phrase, images à la sauvette, or pictures made on the run, in the midst of things (1). From Cartier-Bresson’s work, she learned that photographs, even when taken in the spur-of-the-moment, were far from haphazard and that blunt photographs of the ordinary could reveal the mystery and fantasy within everyday life (2). In early 1936, Levitt acquired a second-hand Leica, a hand-held 35 mm format camera favored by Cartier-Bresson. Small and easy to wield, the Leica allowed Levitt to roam the city neighborhoods, unobtrusively capturing the vibrant lives of ordinary people being played out on the streets.

However, motivated by the desire to photograph people in the street more intimately, “as if they were inside” (3), Levitt equipped her camera with a winkelsucher, an attachment also known as a right-angle viewfinder. This addition, recommended to her by another photographer she admired and worked with, Walker Evans (4), allowed her to stand close to the action while appearing to be shooting something a quarter of a turn away. Such an ability enabled her to capture the natural, unselfconscious choreography of children at play, a favorite subject of Levitt’s, for she loved their imaginations and spontaneous freedom of movement. Levitt is most known for these unaffected and tender photographs of children, images infused with mystery and lyricism.


Both [photographs in the Scripps collection] demonstrate the ease with which Levitt blended into her surroundings and reveal her ingenuity in capturing the lyrical. The work of Helen Levitt continues to resonate today, not simply because of the timeless charm of her subjects, but because of the enduring humanity inherent in all of her candid, city snap-shots.

(1) Phillips, Sandra S. "Helen Levitt's New York." Helen Levitt. San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1991. 15-43. Print.

(2) Hambourg, Maria M. "Helen Levitt: A Life in Part." Helen Levitt. San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1991. 45-63. Print. (3) Ibid.

(4) Walker Evans is best known for his work for the Farm Security Administration, documenting the effects of the Great Depression. Levitt helped Evans during his 1938 exhibition, “American Photographs,” at the Museum of Modern Art and worked side-by-side with him on a series of images taken in the New York City subways between 1938 and 1941. Through him, Levitt became friends with the novelist and film critic, James Agee, with whom she collaborated on her book, A Way of Seeing.
By Julia Berryman SC'12, Academic Year Wilson Intern SP2011, (April 2011)

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