Helen Levitt, RIP
March 30, 2009 11:52 AM   Subscribe

Photographer Helen Levitt, known mostly for her New York street scenes, has died at 95.

Here's a recent interview. (Links on site open in new window/resize by default.)
posted by mudpuppie (13 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
posted by DaddyNewt at 11:59 AM on March 30, 2009

.-. .. .--.
posted by found missing at 12:00 PM on March 30, 2009


Makes me think of Esther Bubley another under appreciated photographer of that era.
posted by nnk at 12:24 PM on March 30, 2009

Given that she was a native New Yorker who her took the city as her muse, the NYT obituary also seems appropriate.
posted by ornate insect at 12:26 PM on March 30, 2009

These are great. As a somewhat recent city transplant, looking at pictures of pre-Giuliani NYC feels like the time you found your parents' high school year book and discovered that buttoned-up Mom and Dad used to take hits of acid, fucked strangers from the bar, and had great bone structure.
posted by zoomorphic at 12:53 PM on March 30, 2009

You could put that graffiti up in a gallery these days.
posted by seagull.apollo at 12:59 PM on March 30, 2009

Helen Levitt's photographs -- along with maybe those of Lisette Modell and Gordon Parks, have always been for me the quintessential New York City. They depict the same streets that we see in the classic noir movies, between 1940 and 1960, when the city seemed to be a much more human place on a much more liveable scale. The famous picture of the kids playing in the fire hydrant is an image of a city where kids could live, and play and explore -- and though it had its dangers, there appeared to be a degree of freedom that I don't see in the place today.

Of course, I've no idea if any of this is true, because Leavitt is responsible for the New York City of my imagination, and how that correlates with the real place, I've no way of knowing, or caring. But the world is less rich for her passing.

posted by PeterMcDermott at 1:04 PM on March 30, 2009

Truly one of the greatest 20th century street photographers, along with Robert Frank and Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander. She made great images from the '30s until this decade. I'm glad she lived long enough to see the critical appreciation she earned in the later years of her life.

Here's an NPR interview. Although she's best known for her black and white work, she did great color work too. And apparently a fair amount of her negatives and slides were stolen or lost throughout her life, so we're missing out on a lot. But what remains is great. RIP.
posted by lisa g at 2:21 PM on March 30, 2009

Sure makes me wish I had grown up, or live in, stoop culture.
posted by captainsohler at 2:45 PM on March 30, 2009

95 - how great is that? She showed NY itself, helped drawn it's image. I idolized her when I was young. Then she sort of just morphed into a hero, like Joseph Brodsky and Seamus Heany and Lee Friedlander and Richard Artschwager. Man am I glad she was around.
posted by From Bklyn at 3:25 PM on March 30, 2009

My favorite thing about Helen Levitt is her sideview camera: It had an arrangement of mirrors inside, so that while she appeared to be pointing it in one direction, she was actually shooting in another -- and catching people unawares. And now, for Helen Levitt I can, for the first time, quite sincerely, post one of these quiet little dots of sorrow

posted by Faze at 5:14 PM on March 30, 2009

posted by rbs at 7:16 PM on March 30, 2009

While I think that Helen's photographs are great, I've always been most interested in her film work - and I think that no obituary would be complete without a least of mention of that side of her career.

As the Times obit mentions, she worked as an editor-for-hire on a number of films, including Bunuel's WWII US propaganda pieces and Emile de Antonio's "In the Year of the Pig." However, her reputation as a filmmaker rests largely on "In the Street," a short (roughly 15 minutes long) documentary. Shot around 1948 (info on the production process is very hard to come by) in Spanish Harlem, though not edited until 1951 or 52, the footage is very reminiscent of her stills, particularly that of children in Halloween costumes which recalls one of her most famous photos. The film was made in collaboration with Janice Loeb, a painter and filmmaker (and Levitt's one-time sister-in-law), and the great James Agee, though the consensus seems to be that Levitt was the main creative force.

For me, "In the Street" has always been an absolute masterpiece - maybe the most important documentary of the immediate post-war period for the way it provided a link between the Lorenz/Van Dyke-style films and the later Drew/Leacock/direct cinema works. And while it never got an official release, it was well-known and well-regarded in artistic circles - both Chaplin and Brakhage had good things to say about it.

Levitt also worked on "The Quiet One," a 1948 documentary-drama hybrid about an emotionally disturbed young African-American boy. Loeb and Agee also worked on that film, along with the director Sidney Meyers, and the film was nominated for two Academy Awards - one for Levitt, Loeb and Meyers for writing and one for Loeb as producer for best documentary. Levitt also worked as a cinematographer on "The Savage Eye" from 1960, another hybrid film, again in collaboration with Meyers.

Unfortunately, her films can be hard to see these days, though "The Savage Eye" is available on DVD. There's a VHS of "In the Street" that can still be found at various libraries, including the NYPL. "In the Street" is also included in Anthology Film Archives' Essential Cinema program, so it gets screened there once every 18 months or so. I would highly recommend searching it out, if you get a chance.

On a personal note, I know a couple of people who knew Helen, and I was always hoping that one of them could introduce me to her. When I asked my old boss, who knew her quite well, about it, he said that she wasn't interested in meeting anyone new and just hung out at her apartment (5 E. 12th St., I think) and played bridge with her old friends. I was trying to put together a Helen Levitt-related project last year (hence all the above research) that I thought might provide me with an excuse to meet her, but it fell apart for other reasons. I guess now I'll always regret not pushing harder to try and meet her when I had the chance.
posted by Awkward Philip at 10:10 PM on March 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

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