21
Apr
09

Vale Helen Levitt: Always ‘Here and There’

April 2009

 

Helen Levitt. 'New York' 1972

 

Helen Levitt (American, 1913-2009)
New York
1972
© Helen Levitt

 

 

“For the perfect flaneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world … Thus the lover of universal life enters into the crowd as though it were an immense reservoir of electrical energy …”

.
Charles Baudelaire. ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ 1863

 

“At least a dozen of Helen Levitt’s photographs seem to me as beautiful, perceptive, satisfying, and enduring as any lyrical work that I know. In their general quality and coherence, moreover, the photographs as a whole body, as a book, seem to me to combine into a unified view of the world, an uninsistent but irrefutable manifesto of a way of seeing, and in a gently and wholly unpretentious way, a major poetic work.”

.
James Agee

 

 

Speaking of pioneers of colour photography the wonderful American photographer Helen Levitt died recently at the end of March. Here is a selection of her colour work from the 1970s – 1980s. With two Guggenheim Foundation grants in 1959 and 1960 she switched from black and white to colour dye-transfer prints photographing the theatre of the street, the serendipity of the decisive moment previsualised and captured through awareness and an intimate knowledge of her subject matter. Unfortunately in a burglary in 1970 most of her colour transparencies and prints were stolen from that initial period.

What remains, as Sally Mann would say, are the eloquent bones of the matter: superb lush colour photographs taken after 1970 that engage the viewer not in memory but in the moment, not in nostalgia but in joy. In colour she found “beauty in correspondences.”

Marcus

.
Please click on some of the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

 

Helen Levitt. 'New York' c.1971

 

Helen Levitt (American, 1913-2009)
New York
c. 1971
© Helen Levitt

 

Helen Levitt. 'New York' c.1971

 

Helen Levitt (American, 1913-2009)
New York
c. 1971
© Helen Levitt

 

Helen Levitt. 'New York' c.1971

 

Helen Levitt (American, 1913-2009)
New York
c. 1971

 

Helen Levitt. 'New York' 1971

 

Helen Levitt (American, 1913-2009)
New York
1971
© Helen Levitt

 

 

Helen Levitt

… Her pictures were mostly of Spanish Harlem and the Lower East Side. She shot them in black and white, as silver gelatin prints, in the 1930s and 1940s and in colour dye-transfer prints in the 1960s and 1970s. In between, she got into movie-making for a while. Her theme was the same, the streets of New York. Apart from a trip in 1941 to Mexico City, she never found a better subject in her life.

The grittier parts were her particular joy. Her world was run-down streets, rubble-filled building sites, warehouses and litter-strewn front steps. This was urban photography with a vengeance: small scraps of sky, no trees. When she was going with Walker Evans in 1938, borrowing his camera as well (“of course”) as sleeping with him, he used to be afraid of going as far uptown as she did. Some of her young male subjects, lounging around in their zoot suits and fedoras, had an unmistakable air of menace. But mostly she brought back images of gossiping women and her favourite, scrambling children. A right-angle viewfinder allowed her to take the picture without them knowing, even, as Evans showed her, when riding right beside them in the subway.

 

Here and there

Her birthplace was in Brooklyn, where her father was in the wholesale knitwear business. She aspired to something more artistic, but found she couldn’t draw. For a time she trained in ballet, which taught her to appreciate the musculature of posing bodies and the spontaneous grace of her child subjects. After dropping out of high school she went to work in the darkroom of Florian Mitchell’s commercial portrait-photography studio on $6 a week. There she was hooked.

A good image, she thought, was just lucky. But her New Yorker’s instinct seemed to tell her exactly where to wait for one. A broken-down car would soon attract people to lie under it, peer under the hood or try to push it. A cane chair, put out on the sidewalk, would draw an elderly man with cigar and newspaper, or a plump young woman in a housecoat wilting in the heat. With luck dogs would come out too, rough-haired mutts or poodles with fresh-shampooed coats. The open back of a truck would reveal delivery men moping on piles of sacks, or dozing among pink and blue bales of cloth. Any abandoned thing – a tea-chest, a mirror frame, the pillared entry of an empty building – would soon sport knots of children diving in, climbing up, fighting and contorting their small bodies in every kind of way.

Her pictures did not have names. “New York”, and the year, was the label on most of them. They did not need explaining; they were “just what you see”. Many had a backdrop of posters, graffiti or billboards, which gave a commentary of sorts. “Special Spaghetti 25 cents.” “Post No Bills.” “Nuts roasted daily.” “Buttons and Notions, One Flight Up.” “Bill Jones Mother is a Hore.” Her earliest project with her first, secondhand camera was to photograph children’s chalk drawings on the pavements. She never tried to speculate on them. What mattered was the patterns they made.

In the 1960s, when she got two Guggenheim grants, she began to shoot the streets in colour. The tricky developing ultimately frustrated her, and the streets, too, had changed. The children had retreated indoors to watch television. But where she had found grace and texture in black and white, colour now provided beauty in correspondences. The multi-coloured balls in bubble-gum machines could be picked up in a girl’s dress, or the red of a stiletto shoe matched with the frame of a shop window. Her broken-down cars were now lurid beasts against the stucco walls. And out of her peeling, greenish doorways could come women in furs, or pink hair-curlers, or orange-striped socks.

She did not rate her own work highly. Though her original prints eventually sold for tens of thousands of dollars, she let them pile up in her apartment in boxes labelled “Nothing good” or “Here and there”. Her hopes when she started were for photographs that would make a socialist statement of some sort, but she abandoned that on Cartier-Bresson’s advice. A “nice picture”, as she reluctantly admitted some of hers were, was a work of art that had value in itself, as well as a celebration of the random, teeming work of art that is the city of New York.

Anonymous. “Helen Levitt,” on The Economist website April 8th 2009 [Online] Cited 16/04/2009

 

Helen Levitt. 'New York' c. 1972

 

Helen Levitt (American, 1913-2009)
New York
c. 1972
© Helen Levitt

 

Helen Levitt. 'New York' c.1972

 

Helen Levitt (American, 1913-2009)
New York
c. 1972
© Helen Levitt

 

Helen Levitt. 'New York' 1972

 

Helen Levitt (American, 1913-2009)
New York
1972
© Helen Levitt

 

Helen Levitt. 'New York' 1980

 

Helen Levitt (American, 1913-2009)
New York
1980
© Helen Levitt

 

Helen Levitt. 'New York' 1971

 

Helen Levitt (American, 1913-2009)
New York
1971
© Helen Levitt

 

 

Slide Show: The Color Photographs of Helen Levitt by John Szarkowski, Powerhouse Books, 2005 is available from the Amazon website. The photograph above is used on the cover of the book.

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His art work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes Art Blart, a photographic archive and form of cultural memory, which posts mainly photography exhibitions from around the world. He holds a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne, a Master of Arts (Fine Art Photography) from RMIT University, and a Master of Art Curatorship from the University of Melbourne.

Marcus Bunyan black and white archive: ‘Dogs, chickens, cattle’ 1994-95

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