Helen Levitt's Indelible Eye
Photographer Captures the Lost Outdoor Life of New York City
Listen to Melissa Block's interview with Helen Levitt.
Jan. 17, 2002 -- Helen Levitt takes you up four flights of stairs in her Greenwich Village brownstone, to the small apartment where she's lived for the past 35 years or so. Levitt is 88 years old now, and her companion is a yellow tabby named Binky.
Her apartment is Spartan -- there's a tiny galley kitchen, and the furniture is spare and worn. On one wall, there's a photo clipped from a magazine long ago, showing a mother gorilla dangling her baby.
But there are none of her own pictures -- the lyric New York street scenes that she's best known for.
"I know what they look like, I don't want to look at them all the time," she told NPR's Melissa Block, co-host for All Things Considered.
Helen Levitt is considered "a photographer's photographer" -- little known by the public, but revered by fellow photographers. She has never sought fame, and she's intensely private. She doesn't enjoy talking about her life, and doesn't find it terribly interesting.
But Helen Levitt has led a remarkable life. Levitt created some of the most indelible photographs of New York City street scenes in the 1930s and 40s. It was a time when indoor temptations didn't yet lure people off the street. Levitt would walk all over the city, shooting, for the most part, in the streets of Spanish Harlem.
"It was a good neighborhood for taking pictures in those days, because that was before television," she told Block. "There was a lot happening. And the older people would be sitting out on the stoops because of the heat. This was... in the late '30s, so those neighborhoods were very active."
James Agee, in his forward to Levitt's book of photographs, A Way of Seeing, called her pictures "a major poetic work." They combine, he wrote, "into a unified view of the world, an uninsistent but irrefutable manifesto of a way of seeing."
Levitt's photographs are tender, and witty, and intimate. Many are of children: children at play, urchins in happy ragtag groups, owning the streets. Their clothes are torn and dirty, and held together with safety pins. Their toys are sticks, and pieces of chalk -- and their own imaginations.
Helen Levitt was born in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, in 1913. She dropped out of high school, and went to work for a commercial photographer in the Bronx. Soon she started taking pictures of her own -- looking for subjects with social meaning.
"And I decided I should take pictures of working class people and contribute to the movements," she said. "Whatever movements there were -- Socialism, Communism, whatever was happening. And then I saw pictures of Cartier Bresson, and realized that photography could be an art -- and that made me ambitious."
At age 88, Levitt still takes pictures -- lately, of farm animals, up in the country. In her apartment, there are stacks of boxes of prints. One box is labeled "nothing good". Another is marked: "Here and There."
powerHouse Books, publisher of Levitt's book Crosstown.