Remembering Helen Levitt

(Credit: Urbanite)

Urbanite republishes a piece from last year on the work of Helen Levitt to mark the iconic street photographer's death:

All photos: Helen Levitt, published by powerHouse Books, used with permission

Think you’ve seen a lot of changes in the urban landscape? Helen Levitt has photographed an ever-changing New York for more than seven decades.

Long-vanished corner luncheonettes, neon “liquor” signs and second-floor button-and-notion shops are still readily accessible through her work. These old-time urban institutions and the people who frequented them are immortalized in a square, record-album-sized volume (Helen Levitt, powerHouse Books, 2008) recently released in conjunction with a retrospective exhibition at Germany’s Sprengel Museum Hannover.

An unsentimental souvenir of a grittier city, the collection includes images from the 1930s to the early 1990s. Before Starbucks and Duane Reade storefronts punctuated Manhattan, Levitt chronicled Sabrett’s hot dog cart awnings, old-time Coca-Cola signs and kids who amused themselves with tricycles and cast-off picture frames.

Born in Bensonhurst in 1913, Levitt has often directed her camera toward the edges of the city and the fringe of society. Today, she continues to peer beneath the patina of a bustling metropolis to chronicle New Yorkers’ everyday lives. In one iconic black-and-white image, an infant squeals with delight as a young girl immerses her head in the blankets of his baby carriage. Similarly Levitt urges the viewer to look beyond conventional scenarios on city streets, infiltrate strangers’ lives and draw their own conclusions.

The coffee-table collection presents Levitt’s images without captions. A small note on the book’s copyright page explains that with a few exceptions, all photos were taken in the city: black-and-white images were taken from 1937 to 1948 and in the 1980s; color photos from 1971 to 1991. Viewers must scrutinize the images – and their own memories—for clues to the photographs’ location and time period.

In a black-and-white photo, a girl clad in a white party dress, bobby socks and sandals, clutches the stomach of a wrinkle-faced, man in a suit and a tie. He looks amused. She is giggling. Behind them, an iron base of a street lamp supports a sign, “Never Sweep Refuse into Street.”

In another image, Levitt captures a more modern embrace. Against a backdrop of 20-story housing project towering above leafy trees, a middle-aged woman reaches toward a teenage boy, “Lee” label visible above back pocket of his jeans, tilted slightly backwards, as if to resist the hug. Behind them a yellow-orange New York State license plate with dark blue letters clings to the front of a car. Is this the Bronx? Brooklyn? Upper Manhattan?

Ultimately the frozen moment trumps the need to pinpoint an exact location.

-- Laura Silver

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