HELEN LEVITT has been making the same kind of photograph for more than half a century. She specializes in capturing the street life of such quintessentially poor neighborhoods as Harlem and the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Where others found little more than confirmation for their liberal politics, Levitt found richness of spirit; for her, the people were always more important than their material circumstances.
When she began, during the Depression, she appeared to be in the mainstream of American photography. She used a Leica, and that was in the spirit of the time; small, so-called candid cameras had first become popular during the 1920s, when they had been taken up by photojournalists who wanted to make pictures without being noticed by their subjects.
The Depression brought with it a new interest in the poor. Partly as a matter of individual conscience, partly because of programs subsidized by the federal government, photographers went out in unprecedented numbers to document the lives of people less fortunate than themselves.
In that context, Helen Levitt could have been seen as one good street photographer among many. But after the hard times were over, photography went in new directions, while Levitt continued in what became her individual path.
She was born in Brooklyn, to a family of Eastern European Jews who were largely without artistic interests. Having found high school unattractive, she dropped out before graduating. At the age of 18, she went to work for a studio portraitist, who introduced her to camera and darkroom techniques.
By her early 20s, however, she had learned from going to exhibitions that there might be more adventurous ways for her to use the medium than doing commissioned portraits. She bought a folding camera and began to photograph the life around her.
In 1935, she stopped doing photography and confined herself to learning from one of the giants of the medium, Henri Cartier-Bresson, who was then living in the United States. They walked together as he photographed in the streets of New York, and they talked about his philosophy of picture-making, inspired by Surrealism, at that time a vital artistic movement in Europe. In 1936, she bought a Leica, the type of camera he used, and began working on her own.
One of her best-known images is of three children, masked as if for Halloween, or indeed for a carnival in Venice, walking out onto the stoop of a tenement building. They have an air of dignity and physical grace. Although we know that they are poor, they seem not so different from the rich. At least for the moment. Levitt's subjects have transcended the struggle for survival.
During the late 1930s, while teaching art in East Harlem, Levitt made a self-assigned project out of documenting children's drawings on buildings and sidewalks. These graffiti provide an inventive counterpoint to a world of prohibitions and limitations. To draw something like a push-button, and then invite the passersby to press the button to enter the secret passage, was to imagine a possibility in a place where real possibilities were in short supply.
In recent decades, Levitt has used color, but she uses it in an unobtrusive way. She is not trying to make striking statements about what color means, nor is she trying to create particular kinds of pattern. She thinks of her photographs as expressions of the reality around her, and color merely adds more reality to the photograph. Color is what happens to be there, in addition to whatever else is there.
Another recent change is that she now prints the entire area of her negative. At the beginning of her career, wishing to exercise full artistic control, she was careful to crop out irrelevant details at the edge of the picture. Now she feels more comfortable about accepting accidents. Color helps to suggest that she was really there, and the incompletely controlled edges of the photograph help suggest that she was a little carried away by the fullness and multiplicity of the street life she records.
Levitt could be described as a specialist in play, except that her kind of play is not any standardized procedure or game with rules. Generally speaking, the children in her photographs are not playing hopscotch or baseball. She prefers to notice people doing things they have invented in the moment.
The Surrealists greatly admired daydreaming and unstructured play as sources of inspiration. Although Levitt's photographs look quite different from Cartier-Bresson's, she has joined him and the Surrealists in recording the behavior of people who are not working in factories or offices or kitchens; hers is a world of idleness and magic, largely inhabited by the young and the old.
In many ways, Helen Levitt has been the truest kind of amateur, content to do her work and leave art-world stardom to others. Nevertheless, it would be a falsehood to suggest that she has been languishing in total obscurity. During the 1930s, New York was in many ways a smaller town than it has since become, and in spite of her youthful shyness Levitt became acquainted with well-known people quite early in her career. Her work was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art and favorably received; for decades she has enjoyed an excellent reputation among photographers and critics.
Perhaps because of her own quiet personality and the modesty of her photographs, she has never had a great success with the general public. Her work is not visually spectacular, and the emotions she captures tend to be quiet and inward-looking, like the photographer herself.
Her pictures record the happy spontaneity of children, but never their cruelty; they show us poverty, but not the terrible damage poverty can do. Sadness, if it appears at all, seems personal and temporary.
Levitt herself might say that she is not portraying a sociologist's or an economist's Harlem. Being desperate for money is one part of the truth, but living a rich imaginative life is another. New York City has changed since the 1930s, and so has America as a whole. Nevertheless, Helen Levitt has remained very much the same as a photographer. In a world full of organized, purposeful behavior, she has managed to create a half-imaginary neighborhood of her own. Her people still have time for daydreaming an d spontaneity, and she still has time to notice them. An exhibit of Helen Levitt's work will be on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York until June 28.