Helen Levitt, New York, 1980
Born in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn in 1913, Levitt lived and worked in New York until her death in 2009. A high school drop out, Levitt was teaching art to children in 1937 when she purchased a Leica so that she could record the chalk drawings she saw everywhere. She spent most of her time photographing in Spanish Harlem in the late 1930s and ’40s and is best known for the black and white pictures that she took during this period. Levitt was interested in summer life in the city, where families, especially children, lived their lives publicly on stoops and streets. According to Levitt, she decided to take pictures of working-class people to contribute to the political movements of the time. It was only after seeing the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, she said, that she understood that photography could also be art. Her photography has been used and received as both political document and art. One of her portfolios of New Yorkers out on their stoops was reproduced in PM, the left-leaning daily newspaper. Some of these pictures were included at her first show, Photographs of Children, which was curated by Edward Steichen at the Museum of Modern Art in 1943.
Levitt spent much of the 1950s working in film and returned to still photography at the end of the decade. Along with William Eggleston and Joel Sternfeld, Levitt was one of the pioneers of color photography. She was awarded Guggenheim Fellowships in 1959 and 1960 to document New York in color. However, most of this early color work is gone; her negatives and prints were stolen from her apartment in 1970.
Levitt has said that she was interested in documenting the energy of the city, which she had seen expressed primarily in children. The children, however, eventually disappeared, living more of their lives indoors. This photograph documents this change in New York in the 1980s. It also focuses on the isolated human body as a sculptural form. Here, Levitt captures a child at play. Arms and legs splayed out in a careful balancing act, the girl is totally unaware of the photographer’s presence. The poppy colors of the cars offer a stark contrast with the drab grays of the street, sidewalks, and stoops—the urban playground. This photograph itself is a delicate balancing act of politics and aesthetics.