Helen Levitt in New York: A Retrospective

If there was a woman photographer who arguably ruled over her contemporaries it was American shooter, Helen Levitt. Her jaw-dropping archive is about to be revisited in Helen Levitt at the Albertina Museum in Vienna, starting 12 October.

Helen Levitt New York, 1940 Gelatin silver print The Albertina Museum, Vienna. Permanent loan of the Austrian Ludwig Foundation for Art and Science © Film Documents LLC / Courtesy Thomas Zander Gallery, Cologne; Anonymous Helen Levitt, ca. 1940 Gelatin silver print Film Documents LLC © Film Documents LLC / Courtesy Thomas Zander Gallery, Cologne

Levitt owned the New York streets. She started focusing on poor and marginalized neighborhoods such as the Lower East Side, Bronx, and Harlem — spending her days documenting the chronicle of the Big Apple. Her scope ranged from children playing on the streets, passersby engrossed in conversation and strangers on the mundane grind.
However, Levitt often added a twist to her supposedly 'straight-photography'. Levitt valued the dynamics of elements at play in her images — always carefully and concisely composing her frames. Thus, her images would often have surrealist-influenced aesthetics. Chief Curator Walter Moser described her work to be “poetic and lyrical —an oversimplified reading, which has long obscured its tremendous complexity.”

“Figures defamiliarized by masks or puzzling gestures bear the influence of Surrealism, for instance. Human interactions, which she represented as a kind of exceptionally dynamic stage performance, evidence her interest in the performative, including the expressive actions and themes that were extensively explored in the cinema at the time. Lastly, Levitt’s focus on poor neighborhoods in New York can be understood as a critical response to a highly industrialized and profit-driven modernity, which was epitomized in the contemporaneous popular representations of clinical and technoid skyscrapers.”
Helen Levitt New York, 1940 Gelatin silver print The Albertina Museum, Vienna. Permanent loan of the Austrian Ludwig Foundation for Art and Science © Film Documents LLC / Courtesy Thomas Zander Gallery, Cologne

Street photographers revolutionized the use of color in straight photography and Levitt herself was a pioneer of the New Color Photography Movement, as she began using color film in 1959. Levitt was the first color photographer to be showcased in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Moser further explained her legacy in color photography:

“Helen Levitt’s pictures thus combine every day with the political, the theatrical with the authentic, and the humorous with the abysmal. These elements can be discerned in her later work, as well, when she turned first to film in 1948 and then returned—in color—to photography in 1959. Levitt invented in her color work a new pictorial language, which indeed shares the interest in street life found in her black-and-white photographs, yet nevertheless often represents people as secondary to abstract color fields.”
Helen Levitt New York, 1973 Dye-Transfer-Print Cologne, Thomas Zander Gallery (Marvin Hoshino) © Film Documents LLC; Helen Levitt New York, 1980 Dye-Transfer-Print Private Collection © Film Documents LLC / Courtesy Thomas Zander Gallery, Cologne

The upcoming exhibition will be open until 27 January 2019.

2018-09-24 #new-york #helen-levitt

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