A remarkable retrospective of Helen Levitt’s street photography from New York is being shown now (2007) at the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation in Paris. The exposition spans seven decades of her photographs made mostly throughout working-class neighborhoods in New York.
Levitt’s wonderfully candid black-and-white shots from the 1930s and 40s — of urban kids playing, and ordinary people going about their lives — have inspired generations of photographers. So it was a delight to be able to see so many of her original silver gelatin prints up-close.
Most surprising, for me however, was to discover her vintage dye-transfer color prints from the 60s through the 80s. The color is super-saturated and startling in its ability to evoke strong memories from that period. The wonderfully warm and humorous street theater is still present in these photos, but the luscious color itself almost steals the show.
Levitt was a pioneer of color photography, starting seriously in 1959, when she received a Guggenheim grant to explore her familiar territory, but shifting from black-and-white to color. Her grant was renewed for a second year in 1960, and she recorded hundreds of color images in these intense two years. Unfortunately, we will probably never see any of those photographs. A discreet burglar broke into her apartment in 1970, and stole almost all of her color transparencies and prints — and not much else.
Undaunted, Levitt went back out into the streets in the 70s with her camera to start all over again. These are the color photographs we can see today (plus a handful of images from 1959-60 which survived). Forty of these color photos were shown as a slide show at the New York Museum of Modern Art in 1974 — one of the first times photographs were formally displayed this way in a museum, and one of the first exhibitions of serious color photography anywhere in the world. That show was presented 31 years after her first solo exhibition at MoMA in 1943. Her work was also part of the famous Family of Man exhibition.
In 2005, powerHouse Books published a collection of more than one hundred of Levitt’s color photos in a book called Slide Show, with an introduction by John Szarkowski, (who was a strong proponent of Levitt’s work during the influential decades he was curator of photography at MoMA). The book has a great collection of images, but after experiencing the intensity and saturation of the dye-transfer prints, the reproductions in the book seem a bit washed out, yet still remarkable.
Levitt’s personal favorites from over seven decades of photographing are beautifully presented in another book, Here and There, with a wonderful introduction by Adam Gopnik.
Writer James Agee said: “At least a dozen of Helen Levitt’s photographs seem to me as beautiful, perceptive, satisfying, and enduring as any lyrical work that I know. In their general quality and coherence, moreover, the photographs as a whole body, as a book, seem to me to combine into a unified view of the world, an uninsistent but irrefutable manifesto of a way of seeing, and in a gently and wholly unpretentious way, a major poetic work.”
You can listen to a wonderful audio interview with Helen Levitt recorded in 2002 by NPR.
— Jim Casper