“Since I’m inarticulate, I express myself with images.” – Helen Levitt
Helen Levitt, an American photographer, was a pioneer in contemporary and street photography, particularly in the busy streets of classic New York. She acquired an inconspicuous secondhand Leica camera during the 1930’s. From then on, she photographed the visually interesting and poignant drama of her working class neighborhood. For over 60 years, she documented the unmediated spontaneity and created a remarkable retrospective of how things were in New York’s alleyways.
From the 1930s until the 1940s, she candidly captured her subjects in black and white. Children became her muses and she took photos of them playing happy-go-luckily along the curbs. Levitt enjoyed taking pictures in gritty streets and this made her urban photography more appealing, more striking. She also photographed “concerned” gossiping ladies and menacing men in zoot suits.
Come 1959, Levitt shifted to color photography. But her photographs’ theme remained the same: her wonderfully warm urban snapshots still stole the spotlight. Unfortunately, most of her works in the 1970s were lost when a burglar stole her color prints and transparencies. The coloured pictures below were the only ones left.
Along with her passion for black & white and color photography, Levitt also fell in love with filmmaking and made a number of notable films. Her works were published in two books, Helen Levitt and A Way of Seeing. Just two years ago, she passed away in her apartment in New York. She was 95. Her photographs may portray only ordinary scenes but all of them reveal extraordinary gaiety and pathos. These serve as windows for us to see how things used to be much simpler and surprising.
Which of these Helen Levitt photographs strike your liking the most? What other classic urban photographers would you like to be written about? Read more about the Best of the Best Series.
basterda is a member of the Lomography team in Manila. She has been dealing with your Customer Service concerns since August of 2010 and is now also contributing to the magazine. Influential Photographs is also one of her ongoing series for the Lifestyle section.