Helen Levitt: “Why don’t we let people look at pictures.”

Helen Levitt (1913–2009), [Two girls on a truck], ca. 1948 (2006.55.2)

School is good. Helen Levitt speaking at ICP on June 17th 1987 about learning photography in the 1930s and 40s by asking the person working at the photography store questions and learning by trial and error, and that printing is a matter of long experience.

Helen Levitt (1913–2009), New York, 1972 (313.1984) 313.1984

Helen Levitt and Marvin Hoshino speaking at ICP on June 17th 1987 about color and context.

Helen Levitt (1913–2009), New York, 1980 (2008.38.1)

Helen Levitt and Marvin Hoshino speaking at ICP on June 17th 1987 about color and time.

Helen Levitt (1913–2009), New York, 1982 (146.1997)

Helen Levitt and Marvin Hoshino speaking at ICP on June 17th 1987 about Levitt’s beginnings as a photographer: working for a commercial photographer, Buster Mitchell, in the Bronx.

Helen Levitt and Marvin Hoshino speaking at ICP on June 17th 1987 about Levitt’s pink darkroom (“Helen has the only pink darkroom in the world.”), Levitt’s fondness for printing, and Helen Levitt compares black and white printing to eating peanuts.

Coinciding with the exhibition: Helen Levitt, “Children’s Street Drawings, New York, 1938-1948,” June 17, 1987 – July 26, 1987, Helen Levitt and Marvin Hoshino spoke at ICP, on June 17th 1987.

Helen Levitt born in Brooklyn on August 31, 1913 and died on March 29, 2009 in Greenwich Village.

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“Yes, yes, yes”

Dorothy Norman (March 28, 1905-1997), An American Place–Telephone and Alfred Stieglitz Equivalent, ca. 1940 (30.1986)

WILLIAM MCNAUGHT: […] When did you first begin to do photography yourself?

DOROTHY NORMAN: In ’31. We had insisted that there be a darkroom at The Place — which Stieglitz had not had in New York.

WILLIAM MCNAUGHT : How did it happen? You said early on that you loved his photographs. And was that your first real interest in photography?

DOROTHY NORMAN: In photography, yes… [I] lived through my eyes so tremendously that I constantly took photographs with a Brownie — I forget what they were called, not the square Brownies but the oblong ones that had an extension. And I was always disappointed in what I photographed. But I fell in love with everything as I traveled that struck me as extraordinary, or simple and beautiful. Stieglitz started to photograph me in ’30,’31…. At the Intimate Gallery I was too shy to bring my stupid camera and take my stupid, miserable photographs. But I don’t know why I had enough courage to take my camera with me to An American Place [53rd Street and Madison Avenue], because by then I had seen a great deal in the field of photography, and of course I’d looked at Camera Work, which Stieglitz had shown me. He gave me some issues, and then I bought some whenever I found them. Stieglitz tried to make up a set of Camera Work for me and I have some photographs I took before I got a Graflex. The way I acquired a Graflex was this: I was so much interested in photographing people, and Stieglitz had a four by five Graflex. He said to me one day, use my camera and I’ll show you what to do. It was very heavy, but it was marvelous to be able to look into the ground glass and really see what you were doing. But the camera was too heavy for me. This was during the Depression — ’31 and I was scared to ask my husband to have one bought for me because they were quite expensive. I thought my husband would think I was mad, but Stieglitz bought a 3 1/4 x 4 1/4 camera, he thought it was perfectly fine. Stieglitz sent for the Graflex and bought it for me. He said, “You can pay me back when you can.” So that was decided in a split second, like that. Then he said, “I’ll show you what to do.” What he told me was to shut down as far as possible, take as long exposures as possible and then just go ahead and photograph, photograph, photograph. I have a number of the first photographs I took,which I would send to Stieglitz. And he would write about them — I have a whole portfolio. He put on the back of them, “Lovely, perfect, beautiful.” But they were awful, just awful. Yet his encouragement was so important. Then he said he would show me how to develop and print.

WILLIAM MCNAUGHT: I was going to say, who printed them?

DOROTHY NORMAN: I did. But let me tell you what he did. He bought a bottle of developer and he read from it: three parts, whatever it was called — one part of whatever it was called and three parts water, and keep shaking your negatives at such and such a temperature. Well, there was no way you could measure the temperature and the time was not always accurate. Because when you were in the darkroom and you started to develop your negatives they looked fine while they were wet. And then when you took them out to daylight they were just miserable. So it was up to me to learn what to do. But Stieglitz did show me the first elements and he’d stand over me in the darkroom and watch and say, “I’d leave it in a little longer.” And his doing that meant a great deal. But I learned more from looking at his photographs in terms of quality, not in terms of what I would photograph, than from anything else. And it was extremely helpful, his encouragement, and initial instruct ions. But I did not go to a school of photography and I did not know the chemistry of photography. So that I was terribly fortunate, as I was in terms of writing, to keep on just writing, writing, writing, just the way I kept right on photographing…

Oral history interview with Dorothy Norman, May 31-1979 June, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, pp. 18-9

Dorothy Norman (March 28, 1905-1997), Alfred Stieglitz, New York, 1932 (27.1986)

WILLIAM MCNAUGHT: How had you first met John Cage?

DOROTHY NORMAN: Oh, I suppose in the thirties or early forties. He told me that Edwin Denby brought him to a party at our house — Edwin Denby was perhaps the best dance critic of the period. John said Edwin Denby had brought him to a party at the house, and we became immediate friends. We both attended Dr. Suzuki’s lectures at Columbia, and we used to drive down in the same taxi. But long before that, he had invited me to come to hear his prepared piano one evening at his beautiful apartment on the East River — on Monroe Street and the river. I was very much interested, always, in modern music, and I knew Copland and Cage and the whole group of composers — I met Ernest Bloch with Stieglitz because Bloch had been a great fan of Stieglitz’s photographs. And when I did the music issue for Twice a Year [-A Semi-Annual Journal of Literature, the Arts and Civil Liberties] I asked Bloch to contribute to it, and I had various pieces about Varèse in Twice a Year also. But I saw more of Cage, beginning in the period in which we were all at Cuernavaca, although I had seen him before. We became great friends. He’s come out here. As I say, we came back to Cuernavaca every year until I couldn’t go there anymore, and there’s no place like Cuernavaca in America. It ‘s kind of an international place, it was really quite marvelous; there were extremely interesting individuals there.

Oral history interview with Dorothy Norman, May 31-1979 June, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, p.44

Dorothy Norman (March 28, 1905-1997), Moonflower IX, Woods Hole, Massachusetts, 1936 (31.1986)

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“There must be something going on down there too…”

Lisette Model (1901-1983), Running Legs, New York, 1940-41 (119.1993)

Lisette Model (1901-1983), Running Legs, New York, 1940-41 (83.1993)

Lisette Model (1901-1983), Running Legs, New York, 1940-41 (96.1993)

Lisette Model (1901-1983), Running Legs, New York, 1940-41 (97.1993)

Lisette Model (1901-1983), Running Legs, New York, 1940-41 (126.1993)

Lisette Model speaking at ICP on November 17, 1977 about how she started taking these photos of sidewalk scrapers.

A summary (even though everything sounds better in Lisette Model’s voice, darling): After arriving in New York, the first thing Lisette Model wanted to do was photograph skyscrapers. Instead of looking up, she began looking down. Dissatisfied with the way the perspective appeared in her Rolleiflex camera, she started intensely photographing, for six weeks, legs and feet, gams and shoes, on the sidewalks of New York.

Lisette Model (1901-1983), Running Legs, New York, 1940-41 (51.1993)

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“The Most Extraordinary Singers and Music” – Lisette Model at Sammy’s Bowery Follies

Lisette Model (1901-1983), Singer [Mabel Sidney] at Sammy’s Bar, ca. 1940, (20.1993)

Mabel Sidney at Sammy’s, ca. 1955

Lisette Model (1901-1983), Singer at Sammy’s, New York, ca. 1940 (49.1993)

Lisette Model speaking, at ICP on November 17, 1977, about Sammy’s (267 Bowery).

Lisette Model (1901-1983), Two Singers, Sammy’s Bar, ca. 1940 (134.1993)

Lisette Model (1901-1983), Couple Dancing, ca. 1940 (90.1993)

Lisette Model (1901-1983), At Sammy’s, New York, ca. 1940 (22.1993)

Lisette Model speaking at ICP on November 17, 1977 about how she got into photography.
A summary: Trained as a musician, a child-student of Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951), Lisette Model was a pianist and wanted to become a singer. After moving from Vienna to Paris something went wrong, “I had too many teachers. Beware of teachers.” Model started to paint. After a 1936 meeting in Paris with a composer who had fled Nazi Germany, Model (who had a little sister who was an excellent amateur photographer) decided to become “a darkroom worker” in order to make a living. (To be continued.)

Weegee, Lisette Model, at Nick’s Jazz Joint ca. 1946 (14208.1993)

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“Free Manicure and Free Tea Cup Reading with Your Lunch”

Lee Sievan, Class in Cultural Anthropology at Hunter College, 1940s (190.1991)

Lee Sievan, San Gennaro, Two Girls with Soda Pop and Balloons, 1946 (33.1990)

Lee Sievan, Corner Candy Store, 1940s (38.1990)

Lee Sievan, Movie Posters and Clothes Lines, 1939 (34.1990)

Lee Sievan was a great photographer.
Like most of us, she doesn’t have a Wikipedia page yet.
Unlike most of us, she worked at Hunter College for many years.
Like more than a few of us, Sievan worked and volunteered at the ICP library.
Unlike most of us, Sievan had a significant connection with many important 20th century artists, like Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman.

According to the website of The Platt Fine Art gallery: Sievan was born on October 9th, 1907, her parents were Polish immigrants and she grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. She graduated from Hunter College in 1925 and continue to work there for 42 years. Sievan studied with Berenice Abbott at the New School and the Photo League. Weegee was a friend and teacher. And intriguingly, Platt Fine Art says that Sievan worked as Weegee’s darkroom assistant.

Lee Sievan, Free Manicure with Your Lunch, 1940s (36.1990)

Unlike most of us, Sievan had an obituary in the New York Times:

Lee Sievan, a photographer, died of a cerebral hemorrhage on Tuesday at Roosevelt Hospital in Manhattan. She was 82 years old and lived in Manhattan.
Fifty years ago, Mrs. Sievan began taking pictures to record the career of her husband, the painter Maurice Sievan. She also photographed performers and other artists, including Paul Robeson, Milton Avery and Mark Rothko.
Some of her photographs of New York City in the 1940’s were recently displayed at the International Center for Photography, on Fifth Avenue at 94th Street, where Mrs. Sievan had worked as a librarian and archivist for 15 years. The photographs are now on view at the Museum of the City of New York.

Lee Sievan, Downtown Manhattan with Cable, 1940s (3.1990)

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Silver Swans

Unidentified PhotographerWomen’s Baseball Team, ca. 1910 (2011.17.3)

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Lotte Jacobi – “I was born to photography”

Lotte Jacobi (1896-1990), Lotte Lenya, actress, Berlin, ca. 1930, (37.1986)

Lotte Jacobi (1896-1990), Photogenic, “silverlining,” 1950 (50.1986)

Lotte Jacobi (1896-1990), Peter Lorre, actor, Berlin, ca. 1932 (41.1986)

Lotte Jacobi (1896-1990), Anna Mae Wong, actress, Berlin, ca. 1931 (38.1986)

Lotte Jacobi at ICP, 1979.

Anna Mae Wong, actress, Berlin, ca. 1931 (38.1986)
Pauline Koner, dancer, New York, ca. 1937 (44.1986)
Photogenic, “silverlining”, ca. 1950 (50.1986)
Photogenic, “water”, ca. 1950 (51.1986)
Lil Dagover, actress, Berlin, ca. 1930 (35.1986)
Lil Dagover, actress, Berlin, ca. 1930 (36.1986)
Anton Walbrook, actor, Berlin, ca. 1933 (42.1986)
Marc Chagall and daughter Ida, New York, ca. 1945 (49.1986)
Käthe Kollwitz, artist, Berlin, ca. 1931 (39.1986)
Albert Einstein, physicist, Noble Prize winner, Princeton, N.J., 1938 (45.1986)
Max Liebermann, artist, Berlin, ca. 1933 (43.1986)
Lotte Lenya, actress, Berlin, ca. 1930 (37.1986)
Robert Frost in Ripton, Vermont, 1959 (52.1986)
Alfred Stieglitz, photographer, at An American Place, New York, 1936 (46.1986)
Head of a dancer, Berlin, ca. 1929 (34.1986)

In the fall of 1979, Lotte Jacobi spoke with Margaretta K. Mitchell at ICP in conjunction with the exhibition: “Recollections: Ten Women of Photography.” The above is a relevant excerpt. Jacobi speaks about how she became a photographer, what it was like to be a photographer in Berlin in the 1930s, how some of her photographs were made, and about some of the photographs that are in ICP’s collection (in the GIF above).

Margaretta K. Mitchell, Lotte Jacobi, 1978 (34.1983)

Lotte Jacobi (1896-1990). Lotte Jacobi’s mailbox announces “Jacobi” in capital letters alongside an old county road in New Hampshire. Next to greet the eye is her Volkswagen’s license plate carrying the state’s motto, “Live free or die,” which turns out to be a clue to the character of her personality, her life, her work. The studio house, created from two lumberman’s shacks, has the improvisational atmosphere of a summer camp or a cottage for a gardener (which she is, and a beekeeper besides). She is clearly also a saver of jars, notes, books, letters, and, of course, boxes filled with pictures. Conversation accompanies our garden tour. She talks as she walks among the day lilies, breaking off dry dead blossoms, tidying up the yard, moving the hose, watering potted plants. We check the summer vegetables, eat a few raspberries between sentences, and visit the beehives and the adjacent field of oats. At the studio, alert on the curved blue sofa, her shawls draped against the back, Lotte Jacobi seems like a bird about to take flight, yet for the moment she remains totally still. Around the room is evidence of an activist in local politics. A stack of bumper stickers proclaiming “No Nukes in New Hampshire ” sits on a carved wood chest beside her portraits of Robert Frost, Albert Einstein, May Sarton, and others. Laconic by nature, Lotte Jacobi wastes no words in her responses to my questions about her early work as a portrait photographer in Berlin – “I was born to photography”; about her resettling here as an American – “I place a high value on individual independence”; about photographing famous people – “We are all just human beings.”
Margaretta K. Mitchell: “Recollections: Ten Women of Photography,” 1979, p.140.

My great-grandfather met Daguerre around 1840 on a trip to Paris. That meeting made him a photographer. He purchased equipment and a license to use the Daguerre process, returned to Germany, and set himself up in business.
My great-grandfather, my grandfather, and my father were photographers. My father’s brothers were, too and some of his sisters married photographers. A whole family of photographers. My sister Ruth Jacobi Roth, is also a photographer. […]
Once I was asked to give a lecture at the Photo League of New York City. I told them I couldn’t lecture but they could ask me something. They said, “We only want to see how you make your pictures.” I showed them, and it was simple I think they didn’t see anything. I don’t think I impressed them very much. You can’t see what I do. I don’t need any background or anything special. I make it simple and try to never complicate things.
Lotte Jacobi, “Recollections: Ten Women of Photography,” 1979, pp. 140-141.

Lotte Jacobi (1896-1990), Head of a dancer, Berlin, ca. 1929 (34.1986)

Lotte Jacobi was born with photographer’s eye… For three generations, the Jacobi family had a photography studio. In 1898, when Lotte was 2, the family moved from Thorn, West Prussia, where she was born, to Posen, which was part of Germany before World War I. Lotte began learning the technical aspects of the family trade when she was 8 and helped her father, Sigismund Jacobi, make wet plates for reproductions in the darkroom. When she was 12, she asked her father for a camera. “He said to me, ‘First, you must make your own camera. That way you will be sure to understand the principle of photography.’ He helped me build a pin‐hole camera. The photographs I took with that camera are the best ones I ever made. From then on, I photographed, but I did not like the business of photography. I did not want to be the fourth‐generation Jacobi to have a photography [studio]. […] Gaylen Moore, New York Times, September 16, 1979

Lotte Jacobi Papers at the University of New Hampshire.
“Born Johanna Alexandre Jacobi on August 17, 1896, in Thorn, West Prussia, Germany, to Maria and Sigismund Jacobi, she was called Lotte by her family and thereafter by all others.” “Lotte Jacobi, 1896–1990,” by Marion Levenson Ross, Jewish Women’s Archive.

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