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Kid’s play: 8 decades of Helen Levitt’s stunning New York City street photography

In 1940, a trio of young photographers Helen Levitt, James Agee and Janice Loeb used hidden cameras to film everyday street life in and around 110th Street and Lexington Avenue of New York’s Spanish Harlem. The footage was then edited together by Levitt and released as a short film In the Street in 1948. The film is now associated more with Levitt’s career as a street photographer than with Agee—who had an award-winning career as a novelist and screenwriter of films like The African Queen (1951) and The Night of the Hunter (1955)—or Loeb—who had a career as an artist and was married to Levitt’s brother Bill. Both Agee and Loeb were instrumental in encouraging Helen Levitt’s career as filmmaker and photographer during the 1950s and 1960s.

Born in Brooklyn in 1913 to a Russian-Jewish family who ran a wholesale knitwear distributor, Levitt decided from an early age that the family business was not for her and that she wanted to study photography. She quit school and had an apprenticeship in developing and printing at a local portrait photographer’s studio. At nineteen, Levitt studied with the photographer Walker Evans, a pioneer of documentary photography who was best known for his powerful images of farmers during the Great Depression as published in the book he collaborated on with Agee Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

Sometime in 1937, Levitt noticed children drawing with chalk in the streets. She watched them playing unselfconsciously, intensely interested in what they were doing. It was a moment of perspicacity that set Helen Levitt off documenting the children and the street scenes she encountered over the next eight decades—shooting with her eyes for others to see.
In the Street, Levitt, Agee and Loeb’s short documentary film of New York’s street life opens with a short poem by Agee that captures the essence of the film:

The streets of the poor
quarters of great cities are,
above all, a theater and
a battleground

There, unaware and
unnoticed, every human
is a poet, a masker,
a warrior, a dancer: and
in this innocent artistry
he projects, against the
turmoil of the street, an
image of human existence.


H/T Reel Foto and Vintage News.

Posted by Paul Gallagher
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