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Photography That Is Child's Play

By Jerome Tarshis / April 27, 1992

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.

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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.