Saturday, October 22, 2016

Helen Levitt: In the Street

Helen Levitt: In the Street is an exhibition featuring more than 40 works by the renowned photographer Helen Levitt. Recording the theater of New York City streets, the exhibition features black-and-white and color photographs spanning the artist’s career from the late 1930s to the mid-1980s as well as a short film by Levitt from the 1940s.

Helen Levitt (American, 1913-2009)
New York, ca. 1940
Gelatin silver print
Collection of the Telfair Museum of Art, gift of Mrs. Robert O. Levitt
© Estate of Helen Levitt
A lifelong New Yorker, Levitt frequented the Lower East Side, Spanish Harlem, and other working-class neighborhoods of the city where life played out on the stoops and sidewalks. Using a handheld Leica camera outfitted with a right-angle viewfinder that allowed her to look in one direction but snap photographs in another, Levitt often passed unnoticed by her subjects, capturing unguarded instants of joyful play and meditative melancholy that constitute the mystery and poetry of everyday lives.

Showcasing the honest, humorous and inventive works of prolific documentary photographer Helen Levitt, this exhibition will feature 30 works by Levitt from the collections of the High and the Telfair Museums (Savannah, Ga.). One of the best-known street photographers of the 20th century, Levitt (American, 1913-2009) documented the everyday dramas of New York City. Working from the 1930s through the 1990s, Levitt roamed the Lower East Side, Spanish Harlem and other urban neighborhoods, capturing the story of city life.

Her photographs portray mothers hovering as their children play, pedestrians making their way along busy sidewalks, and neighbors visiting on stoops, among other scenes. Rarely do any of the figures in Levitt's work, child or adult, engage directly with the photographer or strike a premeditated pose; much more frequently they seem to be occupied completely in their own worlds.

Her photographs, first in black and white and later in color, observe people of every age, race and class without attempting to impose social commentary. Sojourns in New Hampshire and Mexico added variety to Levitt's portfolio, but New York City remained at the heart of her work. 

The exhibition is supplemented with nine images from the Museum’s collection, including three captivating photographs that record the fears and fantasies of children as expressed in their exuberant chalk drawings on the city’s pavement and walls. Also on view is Levitt’s 1948 short film In the Street, her directorial debut. The 16-minute black-and-white film, shot in Spanish Harlem, is a cinematic version of her earlier photographs of children.

“Throughout her long career, Levitt wielded the camera not as a tool of social reform or photojournalism tethered to a historical moment or political movement, but rather as a crystal ball through which to peer into the enduring nature of the human spirit,” commented Malcolm Daniel, Gus and Lyndall Wortham Curator of Photography at the MFAH. “The same unassuming modesty that allowed Levitt to portray her subjects so authentically also kept her from receiving the widespread recognition that she deserves. For many Museum visitors, this may be a first introduction to one of photography’s great artists.”

About the Artist

Born in Brooklyn, Helen Levitt (1913–2009) learned the fundamentals of camera and darkroom practice at a young age, leaving high school a semester before graduation to work for a commercial portrait studio in the Bronx.

It wasn’t until a meeting with the young French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson in 1935, though, that she was introduced to the 35mm Leica camera and shown a new model of what it might mean to be an artist in photography.

She nurtured her vision over the next few years in New York’s museums and cinemas, and through the friendship of Walker Evans, with whom she shared a darkroom.

By 1940, Levitt’s seemingly artless photographs merited inclusion in the inaugural exhibition of the Photography Department at the Museum of Modern Art, followed by the first of three solo shows there three years later.

Levitt left still photography behind by the late 1940s, working instead as a full-time film editor. Her own film In the Street (shot in 1945–46 and first released in 1948) brought her subjects of a few years earlier to life. Then, beginning 1959 with a Guggenheim Fellowship and a new medium—color photography—Levitt once more rediscovered the enchanting cast of characters that inhabited the sidewalks of the city.

Helen Levitt: In the Street is organized by Telfair Museums, Savannah, Georgia.

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