‘When you see an unbelievable confluence of chance in a photograph, remember that the photographer was there, booted and spurred.’ Walker Evans (1969)
When Walker Evans made this comment, he was thinking of Helen Levitt. He had agreed to write a brief introduction to the wonderful photobook Helen Levitt. And he described the picture of the children playing on derelict wasteland as ‘both a dance and a loving lyric’.
Born in New York in 1913, she left school to work for a portrait photographer in the Bronx, getting into her stride as a street photographer towards the end of the 1930s. Many of her finest pictures feature children playing on the streets of Spanish Harlem in the 1940s.
How did she capture the playfulness of childhood? I’m not sure, but certainly it wasn’t just down to quick reflexes. Her pictures show a rare understanding of what it’s like to be a child – they take us down the secret passage that is barred to so many adults.
In later years, Levitt regretted how street life had changed : ‘I go where there’s a lot of activity. Children used to be outside. Now the streets are empty. People are indoors looking at television or something.’
While it’s true that times have changed, for inspiration I still turn to Helen Levitt’s pictures of New York street life. They have movement and dance – and they have heart.