Helen Levitt, American Photographer, Died at 95

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Dead, Helen Levitt on March 29, 2009 at the age of 95, she was an American photographer.

Born on August 31, 1913 she dropped out of high school and went to work for a commercial photographer.

There, she taught herself photography. While teaching art classes to children in 1937, Levitt became intrigued with the transitory chalk drawings that were part of the New York children’s street culture of the time.

She purchased a Leica camera and began to photograph these works, as well as the children who made them.

In the late 1940s, Levitt made two documentary films with Janice Loeb and James Agee: In the Street (1948) and The Quiet One (1948).

Levitt, along with Loeb and Sidney Meyers, received an Academy Award nomination for the screenplay of The Quiet One.

Levitt was active in film making for nearly 25 years; her final film credit is as an editor for John Cohen’s documentary The End of an Old Song (1972).

Levitt’s other film credits include the cinematography on The Savage Eye (1960), which was produced by Ben Maddow, Meyers, and Joseph Strick, and also as an assistant director for Strick and Maddow’s film version of Genet’s play The Balcony (1963).

In her biographical essay, Maria Hambourg writes that Levitt “has all but disinherited this part of her work.”

Feeling un-stimulated at school she left before graduating and went to work for a commercial photographer gaining technical knowledge over the next four years.

Her self-taught education aligned her with Henri Cartier-Bresson and Walker Evans.

Cartier-Bresson’s work taught her three lessons: a blunt photographic record of ordinary facts could reveal the mystery and fantasy within daily life; that the poetry in such pictures turned its back on conventional value systems and notions of beauty; and that this art, which trafficked in the momentary, was not haphazard.

In the mid-1940s Levitt collaborated with Agee, filmmaker Sidney Meyers, and painter Janice Loeb on The Quiet One, a prizewinning documentary about a young African American boy, and with Agee and Loeb on the film In the Street, which captures everyday life in East Harlem.

For the next decade she concentrated on film editing and directing.

In 1959 and 1960 she received Guggenheim Fellowships to investigate techniques using colour photography.

The slides that resulted from the project, shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1963, were stolen from her apartment before they could be duplicated.

Levitt focused for the rest of the 1960s on film work and resumed photography in the 1970s, with a major Museum of Modern Art show in 1974.

Levitt’s pictures report no unusual happenings; most of them show the games of children, the errands and conversations of the middle-aged, and the observant waiting of the old.

What is remarkable about the photographs is that these immemorially routine acts of life, practiced everywhere and always, are revealed as being full of grace, drama, humour, pathos, and surprise, and also that they are filled with the qualities of art, as though the street were a stage, and its people were all actors and actresses, mimes, orators, and dancers.

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