The woman who photographed Downtown’s lively children

text: Taka Kawachi

2019.05.07

A few days ago, I saw the impressive cover (showing two children playing) of Everything But The Girl’s album “Love Not Money” in Kazuto Yamaki’s The Essentials vol.1 column here on SEIN Online. It inspired me to write about the photographer Helen Levitt in my column, as the one subject Levitt was most interested in were children playing joyfully in the streets.

Helen Levitt was born in Brooklyn in 1913. Aged 18, she began working in a portrait studio in the Bronx and devoted herself to the study of photography. She soon met Walker Evans, worked as his assistant, and became renowned for her Henry Cartier-Bresson-inspired snapshot photography, shot on small-frame Leica cameras.

Between the 1930s and the late ‘40s, Levitt focused on photographing in the diverse neighborhoods of Spanish Harlem or the Lower East Side—areas mostly inhabited by immigrant families. Her photographs from this era are collected in her magnum opus, the photobook “A Way of Seeing.”Back then, before there were TVs to sit in front of, children made back alleys and streets their playgrounds. From her own, unique perspective, Levitt’s photographs show us the liveliness and the wild, animated expressions of children absorbed entirely within their own worlds—the games that unfold daily (hide-and-seek, various war games etc.), the chalk drawings on the asphalt, the bullies and their victims.

Levitt captured more than the children, though: adults sitting in chairs brought out onto the streets, seemingly lost in nostalgia; groups of women immersed in gossip. Her photographs show a New York that knew no borders between races, where black, white and latin Americans simply went about their days, and New York happened anew, each day, with “good ol’ days” vibe slightly reminiscent of the immediate postwar days of Japan’s Showa era. At the same time, the photos exhibit Levitt’s technical mastery and her sharp senses, which bring to mind William Klein’s portrayal of 1950s everyday life in his “New York” series.

Helen Levitt (b. 1913 in Brooklyn, New York) / A photography autodidact, she focused her attention on children playing with each other, without regard for race or social status, in the streets of Harlem or Downtown New York. Levitt held a solo exhibition at the New York Museum of Modern Art in 1943 and created documentary movies like “The Quiet One” (1949) and “In the Street” (1951). Following a stipend by the Guggenheim, Levitt began shooting street photography in color. In 2001, she published her color photography together with previously unpublished works in the photobook “Crosstown.” Helen Levitt died in 2009, in New York, at the age of 95.
Her masterpiece, the 1965 photobook “A Way of Seeing”, has recently been republished by Duke University Press, featuring essays by Walker Evans as well as writer and photographer James Agee.
Helen Levitt, Untitled (Home Team, The Reds), New York City, c.1940

The carefree humanity in these photographs and their ability to burrow themselves deeply into the hearts of their audience may be a reflection of Levitt’s love for the city of her childhood. The circumstance that her first photobook only came into being twenty years after having taken these photographs, however, was surely influenced by Levitt’s humility and her aversion of being in the spotlight.

As a woman photographer, Helen Levitt was a pioneer. She is highly regarded as a “photographer’s photographer” today, but died virtually unknown ten years ago at the age of 95, having lived in a small apartment in Greenwich Village together with her cat.
Her mentor Walker Evans once called her photography “anti-journalism.” And it is true—her invaluable work captured street life not in news photographs but from a personal, unique viewpoint, preserving these scenes for the present age in images that still radiate with energy.

Taka Kawachi

Benrido, Overseas Division Director

Taka Kawachi has extensive international experience, having graduated from the Academy of Art University of San Francisco, to then working in New York City as a book editor and curator for 15 years. Returning to Japan in 2011, he held the position of Director for the Amana Photo Collection, overseeing the development of the company’s acquisitions of more than 550 Japanese photographic works in four years. In 2016, Kawachi published his first book Art no Iriguchi (Entrance to the Arts, on American Art) followed by his second publication on European Art released in the fall of the same year. His publications illustrate his experiences of art and photography and offers readers an opportunity to engage with the history and subjects of both regions from his unique point of view. He is currenlty the Director of the Overseas Division of Kyoto’s Benrido, working to disseminate the classic and rare photographic process of Collotype, and produced portfolios of Saul Leiter and J.H. Lartigue, etc.

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