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Clarence Helen Levitt, American, (August 31, 1913–March 29, 2009)
New York, New York [Girls with Bubbles], c. 1942
Silver gelatin print on paper
11 in. x 14 in. (27.94 cm x 35.56 cm)

Object Type: Photography
Technique: Gelatin silver Process
Credit Line: Scripps College. Purchase made possible by the Jean and Arthur Ames Fund
Accession Number: 2004.6.2

In the 1930s and 1940s, before television and air conditioning coaxed the population indoors, the streets of New York City teemed with the activity of residents who treated them as a second living room. American photographer Helen Levitt’s masterful portraits of street life in her native city during this period are arguably her best-known works, capturing poignant, fleeting moments of daily life with a keen and sensitive eye. Among her more celebrated photographs are her black-and-white images of children, which provide a window to a time when much of the boisterous theatre of childhood was staged outdoors.

In this image, the appearance of several bright soap bubbles captures the attention of four young girls walking along a New York sidewalk. We cannot help but compare the bare, juvenile shoulders of the leftmost girl with the blossoming figure of the older girl on the right, who stands slightly apart from the group. She appears less enraptured by the bubbles than the others, whose slight frames and sudden delight reflect the levity of the bubbles opposite. Her presence complicates this mirrored harmony, drawing the eye downward toward the girls’ terrestrial realm. She reminds the viewer of the fate shared by the filmy, ephemeral bubbles and the younger children beside her: just as the bubbles must soon burst, so must their youthful wonder give way to the weighty realities of adolescence.
Robin Dubin ’12
Wilson Intern 2011

[Wall text from Art Pix #1: Streetview: A Spectrum in Black and White]
"Chosen by voters as the cornerstone of this exhibit, Girls with Bubbles (1942) is a testament to Helen Levitt’s ability to capture fleeting moments of lyricism, mystery, and quiet drama on the streets of her native New York. At first, this photo appears to be a simple depiction of four girls walking along an empty sidewalk bordered on the far side by a brick wall. But then the viewer notices something very curious floating in the left side of the photograph. Five pristine bubbles hover mysteriously. Who blew them and where did they come from? The four girls seem just as interested in this appearance as the viewer, their heads turned in unison, riveted by this anomaly. There is mystery and tension within the photograph as the viewer is left to wonder about the identity of the bubble blower as well as the role of Helen Levitt in taking the picture Clearly she is following the girls, and yet they continue to remain absorbed in the bubbles. Despite these questions, the viewer is still able to share in the innocent and silent joy of children in wonder."
(Julia Berryman SC '12)

Documentary realism has always had a reputation for the dour; its major practitioners, like Dorothea Lange or Jacob Riis, recorded economic inequality rampant in American society. Levitt’s “New York, New York,” series defied this stereotype. Levitt often focused on the gestures and actions of children. The bubbles in the top left corner of the photograph allows Levitt to adopt the point of view of a child, optimistic despite the difficulties of the New York tenements. Opting not to shoot the skyline, Levitt makes the city more intimate and hospitable, creating a window into the point of view of those actually living there.

David Kuhio Ahia, PO ’18
Getty Multicultural Undergraduate Intern

Signed on verso.

Silver gelatin print.

Object Description
Image of children walking alone the bank of a storm channel in New York City.

Purchased from the Koeikan Gallery in Los Angeles, California, 9/2004.

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