From The Economist print edition
Helen Levitt, photographer of New York, died on March 29th, aged 95
OVER the course of her long life, many people wanted to ask Helen Levitt about her photographs. She always refused, at least as far as public pronouncements were concerned. “I’m inarticulate,” she would say. “I express myself with images.” Or, “If I could say that, I wouldn’t have to take pictures.”
The result was that few people knew her, outside professional photographers and her poker circle. And that was fine with her. She lived defiantly alone except for Binky, her tabby cat. The only photograph released of her after her death showed a not-unpretty face, crop-haired and heavily lipsticked, about to scowl. She was in her 50s then, and looked as though the camera had outraged her.
More determined interviewers tracked her to the fourth floor of the walk-up brownstone on East 13th Street where she lived for most of her life. The stairs didn’t deter her, despite her sciatica and a strange, lifelong inner-ear disorder that made her feel “wobbly” all the time. But in her last decade she found her old Leica was getting too heavy to carry about, and switched to a Contax automatic. It was a poignant moment. She had been inspired to use a 35mm Leica by Henri Cartier-Bresson, no less, after trailing him one day in 1935 as he took photographs round the wharves of Brooklyn. He became a great admirer of her work. She thought any comparison of herself with him was ridiculous.
Her pictures were mostly of Spanish Harlem and the Lower East Side. She shot them in black and white, as silver gelatin prints, in the 1930s and 1940s and in colour dye-transfer prints in the 1960s and 1970s. In between, she got into movie-making for a while. Her theme was the same, the streets of New York. Apart from a trip in 1941 to Mexico City, she never found a better subject in her life.
The grittier parts were her particular joy. Her world was run-down streets, rubble-filled building sites, warehouses and litter-strewn front steps. This was urban photography with a vengeance: small scraps of sky, no trees. When she was going with Walker Evans in 1938, borrowing his camera as well (“of course”) as sleeping with him, he used to be afraid of going as far uptown as she did. Some of her young male subjects, lounging around in their zoot suits and fedoras, had an unmistakable air of menace. But mostly she brought back images of gossiping women and her favourite, scrambling children. A right-angle viewfinder allowed her to take the picture without them knowing, even, as Evans showed her, when riding right beside them in the subway.
Her birthplace was in Brooklyn, where her father was in the wholesale knitwear business. She aspired to something more artistic, but found she couldn’t draw. For a time she trained in ballet, which taught her to appreciate the musculature of posing bodies and the spontaneous grace of her child subjects. After dropping out of high school she went to work in the darkroom of Florian Mitchell’s commercial portrait-photography studio on $6 a week. There she was hooked.
A good image, she thought, was just lucky. But her New Yorker’s instinct seemed to tell her exactly where to wait for one. A broken-down car would soon attract people to lie under it, peer under the hood or try to push it. A cane chair, put out on the sidewalk, would draw an elderly man with cigar and newspaper, or a plump young woman in a housecoat wilting in the heat. With luck dogs would come out too, rough-haired mutts or poodles with fresh-shampooed coats. The open back of a truck would reveal delivery men moping on piles of sacks, or dozing among pink and blue bales of cloth. Any abandoned thing—a tea-chest, a mirror frame, the pillared entry of an empty building—would soon sport knots of children diving in, climbing up, fighting and contorting their small bodies in every kind of way.
Her pictures did not have names. “New York”, and the year, was the label on most of them. They did not need explaining; they were “just what you see”. Many had a backdrop of posters, graffiti or billboards, which gave a commentary of sorts. “Special Spaghetti 25 cents.” “Post No Bills.” “Nuts roasted daily.” “Buttons and Notions, One Flight Up.” “Bill Jones Mother is a Hore.” Her earliest project with her first, secondhand camera was to photograph children’s chalk drawings on the pavements. She never tried to speculate on them. What mattered was the patterns they made.
In the 1960s, when she got two Guggenheim grants, she began to shoot the streets in colour. The tricky developing ultimately frustrated her, and the streets, too, had changed. The children had retreated indoors to watch television. But where she had found grace and texture in black and white, colour now provided beauty in correspondences. The multicoloured balls in bubble-gum machines could be picked up in a girl’s dress, or the red of a stiletto shoe matched with the frame of a shop window. Her broken-down cars were now lurid beasts against the stucco walls. And out of her peeling, greenish doorways could come women in furs, or pink hair-curlers, or orange-striped socks.
She did not rate her own work highly. Though her original prints eventually sold for tens of thousands of dollars, she let them pile up in her apartment in boxes labelled “Nothing good” or “Here and there”. Her hopes when she started were for photographs that would make a socialist statement of some sort, but she abandoned that on Cartier-Bresson’s advice. A “nice picture”, as she reluctantly admitted some of hers were, was a work of art that had value in itself, as well as a celebration of the random, teeming work of art that is the city of New York.
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