Helen Levitt


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Photographer and filmmaker. Known especially for candid, poetic views of neighborhood life in her native New York, she worked often in lower-class areas, where she observed personality, charm, humor, and sociability on the streets. Her lively and appealing children at play often enact dramas that seem to portend the larger themes of adult life. An unusual series is devoted to children's street drawings and graffiti. Except for photographs made while living in Mexico City in 1941, nearly all of Levitt's work depicts Manhattan. She began photographing in the mid-1930s, influenced at first by Walker Evans, Ben Shahn, and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Through the late 1940s, she roamed Spanish Harlem, the Lower East Side, and other poor neighborhoods, where she photographed unobtrusively with a small handheld camera, sometimes fitted with a right-angle lens. Levitt's motivation was only partly documentary. Spontaneity, unconstrained expression, and the poetry of experience carried equal weight in the determination of her subjects. In the early 1940s, she began working as a film editor and soon extended her photographic practice into this medium. Writer James Agee collaborated on both her films, In the Street (1945–46) and The Quiet One (1946–47). She numbered among the first to use color in fine art photography, an interest she began to pursue in 1959, and to show her work in a museum by means of automated continuous slide projection, as she did in 1974 at the Museum of Modern Art. In 1965, nearly twenty years after it had been assembled, she published A Way of Seeing, with text by Agee. Crosstown, with an introduction by Francine Prose, appeared in 2001. Slide Show (2005) presents earlier color work. She died in her Manhattan home.

Subjects: Art.

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