Helen Levitt : Queen of street photography

‘When you see an unbelievable confluence of chance in a photograph, remember that the photographer was there, booted and spurred.’ Walker Evans (1969)

Three_boys_playing_on_wastelandWhen 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.

chalk_message_press_button_to_secret_passageHow 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.’

Dancing_in_the_street_New_York_1940sWhile 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.



6 Responses to “Helen Levitt : Queen of street photography”
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