Press "Enter" to skip to content

The big picture: New York with ladies and luggage

The pioneering photographer Helen Levitt’s photographs captured the casual flow of life with grace and tenderness

Helen Levitt was born in New York in 1913 and died there in 2009, at the age of 95. She had a considerable reputation as a photographer but, in the years to come, it seems to me, we will cherish her still more warmly and regard her work even more highly. The black-and-white pictures from the 1930s and 40s – kids playing in the streets, old people keeping a watchful eye on the neighbourhood – have a lyrical grace and a rough-and-tumble tenderness. The kids are having a lot of fun – even if that fun involves someone getting hurt – and it’s fun looking at the pictures. They’re easy on the eye in the way that Anna Karenina is easy to read compared with Ulysses. Henri Cartier-Bresson was a decisive influence but Levitt seemed happy to survey the flow of life casually going about its unruly business rather than pouncing on instants of suddenly perfect visual geometry. Her photographic moments, as a result, contain entire childhoods, whole lifetimes of everyday disappointment and routine happiness: the kind of stuff we associate with narrative fiction rather than photographs.

loading...

In the 1950s she began shooting in colour – not as a formal experiment but as a natural extension of the urge James Agee had observed in the earlier black-and-white work: “to perceive the aesthetic reality within the existing world”. When almost all of this colour work was stolen by a burglar she started afresh in 1971.

This picture is part of a retrospective of Levitt’s work now on show at Arles photography festival. I like fondly to think that Levitt had photographed the lady in the marbled blue dress on the left before, Seven Up!-style, caught in a similar gesture of playful triumph – now that she’s old it might just be backache – when they were both young, in the 1930s. But the other woman, on the right, haven’t I seen her before too, at exactly the age she is now, looking on with that same attitude of rough-hewn, nosy resignation, in black-and-white pictures from before the war? There is, in other words, something timely and eternal about Levitt. So while her city has changed, has become, in many ways, a playground for the young and affluent, this picture also depicts a distinctively 21st-century scenario: Airbnb guests, with all their luggage, wondering when their host is going to show up. Help is, as they say, at hand; it’s just that no one knows what form it might take.

Helen Levitt: Observing New York’s Streets is at Espace Van Gogh, Arles photography festival, until 22 September

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

loading...