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Helen Levitt Captured Perfect Moments, Unnoticed

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Helen Levitt Captured Perfect Moments, Unnoticed

Helen Levitt Captured Perfect Moments, Unnoticed

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Helen Levitt found magic on the grimy streets of New York. Her photographs from the '30s and '40s captured the grit and vigor and humor of the city. And she kept on shooting for much of her life. Helen Levitt died in her sleep over the weekend. She was 95.

Late in 2001, I visited her in her small, well-worn Greenwich Village apartment for a story about her life and career. And it was probably one of the toughest interviews I've ever done. It quickly became clear she didn't much like talking about her work. I tried asking about one her best-known images: a black-and-white picture of four young girls watching as soap bubbles drift across the street.

What's going on there, do you think? What did you capture in that picture?

Ms. HELEN LEVITT (Photographer): Just what you see.

BLOCK: Why do you think it is hard to talk about?

Ms. LEVITT: If it were easy to talk about, I'd be writer. Since I'm inarticulate, I can express myself with images.

BLOCK: When you look at that picture, are you happy with it? I mean, does it give you pleasure to look at it?

Ms. LEVITT: Yeah. I think it's a nice picture.

BLOCK: Helen Levitt was charming, though, in her own tough way, living with her yellow tabby cat Binky up four flights of stairs. She told me briefly about meeting the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, learning from him that a picture didn't have to have social meaning, that it could stand up by itself. And she talked some about walking around the streets of New York and how she could capture those moments unnoticed.

Ms. LEVITT: Attached to my camera, I had a little device that fit on the Leica camera that they called a winkelsucher, which meant that you could look one way and take the picture the other. You can turn your camera sideways.

BLOCK: They were small, perfect moments that she found, though she would never tell you that. From about 1940, a cluster of street urchins in tattered clothes - they're holding the frame of a broken mirror, and a boy on a bicycle is framed exactly in that open space. In one of my favorite pictures, we see just the back and legs of a woman. She's dived up to her shoulders into her son's baby carriage, as he laughs in huge delight. This was a time when life was lived on the streets, and that's where Helen Levitt spent her time, especially in Spanish Harlem.

Ms. LEVITT: It was a very good neighborhood for taking pictures in those days, because that was before television. There was a lot happening. And then the older people would sometimes be sitting out on the stoops because of the heat. They didn't have air conditioning in those days. This was, don't forget, in the late '30s.

BLOCK: When I was in her apartment, I saw boxes of prints stacked up. One was labeled simply: nothing good. Another one was marked: here and there.

Ms. LEVITT: Well, that's the beginning of maybe another book.

BLOCK: Really?

Ms. LEVITT: Mm-hmm.

BLOCK: Can I take a peek?

Ms. LEVITT: Nope. You can't see it, because I'm unsure about it. If I was sure that they were worth anything, I'd show it to you. But I can't.

BLOCK: Well, she must have decided they were worth something. That book, "Here and There," came out a few years later. About a year after my first visit, I went back to see Helen Levitt one more time. I was moving away from New York, and wanted to bring a piece of the city with me. She let me look through some boxes of prints, and the one I bought from her that day hangs on my living room wall. It shows two young children on the street, of course - not the sidewalk. They're in the middle of the street, and they're dancing. A white girl, in bright white shoes and a summer dress, her arms raised up - maybe she's about to twirl. She turns toward a black boy, smaller, in shorts, with one arm curved joyfully over his head. I'm sure they had no idea that Helen Levitt was there.

Helen Levitt died yesterday in New York at age 95. You can see a gallery of Levitt's images at npr.org/pictureshow.

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