TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT December 1991

PHOTOGRAPHY AND REMEMBRANCE: HELEN LEVITT

In this little girl’s image I saw the kindness which had formed her being immediately and forever, without her having inherited it from anyone....For once, photography gave me a sentiment as certain as remembrance.
—Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, 1980

I HAVE ALWAYS been partial to photographs of the ’30s and ’40s, largely because my memories of those years simply do not allow the images to disappear, as Walter Benjamin would say, into Art. In the ’30s, all the men seemed to wear hats and vests like my father did; in the ’40s, even if it was partly propaganda, there was a sense of solidarity the United States has not known since. The importance of sports, especially to one of my generation, is the extension into adulthood of childhood play and dreams of glory. So when I see photographs of children absorbed in play, like those taken by Helen Levitt in the late ’30s and throughout the ’40s, they strike a nerve that is not simply nostalgic but a reminder of what I am and still possess as an ontological being.

Levitt is the subject of a current retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art that spans the years from the late ’30s to the late ’70s. I did not know how many of her photographs I was familiar with until I undertook this essay and discovered that in 1966 I had used one of her canonical images to make studies for a painting that happened to depict a moment of significant play in my own childhood. I eventually eliminated the figure I borrowed, but that young girl carrying a quart of milk in each arm, hugging them to her breast as if they were portents of womanhood, seems retroactively to taunt and tempt my manhood, since the game I was playing was marbles, which is not exactly a macho sport, even though I called the picture The Champion.

There are several parts to the answer as to why Levitt is not better known to me—and to others, apparently aside from the fact that I follow painting more regularly than I do photography (though I wrote at length about Walker Evans 24 years ago). One is that in the rush to establish photography as art once and for all during the past twenty-five years or so, the emphasis has been on canonical figures—Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, and Evans among the dominant Americans, Julia Margaret Cameron, David Octavius Hill, and Robert Adamson, but especially Eugene Atget among the Europeans—a sorting process begun with the pioneering histories of Newhall (1937) and Helmut and Alison Gernsheim (1969).

Another reason has to do with Levitt herself. For extended periods she did little still photography, either due to illness or because of her involvement with documentary film (when she collaborated with James Agee and Janice Loeb) and her work as a director and film editor. These hiatuses, combined with her unassuming photographic style, have somewhat obscured the public reputation of a photographer who, at 78, is perhaps the last surviving premier photographer of her generation.

Levitt is, furthermore, a street photographer who made her mark, mainly in the 1940s, with images that resist being labeled “documentary” in the conventional sociopolitical sense of the word. Although her subjects have usually been poor blacks, whites, and Hispanics, photographed against backdrops of depression and war, she has never taken pictures for the record or as social criticism. Indeed, her photographs are not without their ambiguities. Her inarguable humanism and discretion notwithstanding, Levitt clearly chooses her subjects as foils for an intensely personal, even private agenda.

From the start Levitt had admirers like Evans, Agee, James Thrall Soby, and Nancy and Beaumont Newhall, and she had a show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York as early as 1943. Nevertheless, her work was overshadowed by the more overtly documentary photography of the day by Berenice Abbott, Evans, Ben Shahn, and Dorothea Lange, and the more flamboyant photojournalism of Margaret Bourke-White and Weegee. By the time she resumed street photography in the late ’50s (two successive Guggenheim grants in 1959 and 1960 must have been crucial), Robert Frank’s The Americans (1958) had almost single-handedly changed the course of independent social photography, inspiring the work of such celebrated photographers as the late Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander. (Nor could Diane Arbus’ notoriety be matched.) Levitt’s personal spin on the documentary tradition is rooted in a far less intrusive or “activist” style, and while she might also be termed a “slum” photographer, hers is a vision that risks sentimentality in order to depict haphazard moments of participation, transport, and dismay with such empathetic clarity that ideology simply falls away.

Levitt’s biggest problem may in fact be ideological. There is little or no room today in the dominant criticism of photography for the work of such an unassertive “straight” photographer. Despite her sympathy with the underclass, her approach to the graphic representation of sentiment is simply not conceptual, ironic, or political enough for the theorists of a “new” photography, who seek to break down the distinction between the mediums of photography and painting. “The intention of such work,” writes Abigail Solomon-Godeau, “is less about provoking feeling than about provoking thought.”1 The rhetorical, even emotional aspect of her own thought often escapes Solomon-Godeau, but it serves to dramatize the fact that Levitt is nothing if not a photographer of “feeling.”

Whatever that means. One responds directly to Levitt’s photographs because there is no intention in any of them of manipulating the viewer to sympathize with their subjects. Her own response to her material is of a kind of wonder and exhilaration experienced in the very act of recognition. This takes in not just figures but everything in her field of vision—buildings, walls, automobiles, graffiti, steps, doorways, and, of course, streets. A powerful example of this is the 1945 photograph of a ghetto dandy who defies the lassitude of his neighbors with a sullen attitude and hip couture—a loud suit with wide lapels, a broad-brimmed felt hat planted on his head like a helmet with its visor tipped, and a tie so flagrant it makes today’s retro imitations seem effete. The image is pure urban Mantegna and captures not only its motley crew but the entire neighborhood as well. I suspect this is why Levitt’s photographs remind me of Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull. Not only does Scorsese have a comparable sense of a particular milieu, he has a similar feeling of emotional displacement. Both Levitt and Scorsese purvey images that evoke a cognitive mystery in which depressive circumstances yield recollections that are mythical if not actually healing.

I remember one image in particular from Raging Bull—that of the fallen prizefighter, Jake La Motta (Robert De Niro), now a seedy nightclub performer, leaving the club in broad early morning daylight, a vacant parking lot and a lone palm tree literalizing the emptiness over which he would eventually triumph. You get a similar feeling in some of Levitt’s photographs of children that they are rehearsing the fighting spirit they will need in the future or fail to survive. There is this radiation in her photographs that is still in my present, naming the remembrances that Barthes recognized while studying an old family snapshot of his mother when she was—what?—five years old! “The photograph is literally an emanation of the referent,” Barthes wrote. We all know that, of course.

The medium of photography being what it is, it is probable that anyone can find an element of his or her own autobiography in a photographic image. Whether the camera lies or not—and who really cares?—its information is there to be used, challenged, discarded, destroyed. The photograph’s power as likeness permits the mimetic substitution of one’s own consciousness, not simply one’s appearance, for something within the photo that seems like it. Aside from the personal horde of snapshots that we reserve for private contemplation—in time we become our own “other”—the images that most arrest us, that make the most compelling public impressions, thereby qualifying as something like art, use subject matter to infuse the spatiotemporal aspect of a photograph with the certainty that we—any of us—could have been there. And for that the photographer has to be totally “present” as well.

What distinguishes Levitt’s photographs from that of her dominant contemporaries like Evans, whom she knew well, and Henri Cartier-Bresson, whom she knew briefly, is that her life is very nearly metaphysically present, one might even say on the line, in her imaging of the poor. Her pictures have none of the distancing formality of Evans’ American Photographs (his Cuban photos are something else and Levitt responded to them) or of Cartier-Bresson’s dispassion or universality, though his use of the 35-mm. camera and his notion of the “decisive moment” were clearly formative precedents for Levitt. In certain respects Levitt has more in common with Frank, since she was something of an outsider too. As a European, Frank was obviously fascinated by America as a culture embodied in variegated types; Levitt’s appropriation of a local but estranged ambiance reflects, I think, a more particular and personal sense of place and class about which I will have more to say. Her pictures seem like projections of feelings she did not know she had until she recognized them in her subjects. She is constantly recreating an awareness otherwise withheld, grouping the concatenated fragments of each image in a moment in which perception and memory are fused.

Unfortunately there is little in the two desperately sincere essays (Levitt seems to have this effect on writers, especially Agee) in the catalogue that is particularly illuminating about a life that has clearly merged with the subjects that have preoccupied her. Written by Sandra Phillips, curator of photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and Maria Morris Hambourg, curator of prints and photographs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, both contain often vivid expository descriptions of Levitt’s photographs, but the writers take the art status of photography for granted in a way there is little intellectual evidence in the essays to justify.2 They neither speculate on the medium nor do they investigate the meanings they find in Levitt’s images, beyond a generalized humanism, to authenticate photography as representation. Both, but especially Phillips, portray Levitt as an artist shaped by historical and cultural forces, but neither analytically confronts the interaction between her life, her times, and her photographs. Phillips provides a lot of interesting cultural background, Hambourg a rather porous biography and, out of respect for Levitt’s privacy, virtually no curiosity about it. In short, despite personal interviews and extensive scholarship, there is no conceptual context or a judgment more rigorous than profound appreciation.

But Levitt is nothing if not a “Modern” photographer, by which I mean not only the combination of idealism and realism in her photographs, but especially the visual conventions she adheres to, which are typical of the era in which Modernism took hold in American culture. As in the best photographs of her time, the space everywhere comes up against a plane and is framed so rigorously that all the loose informal movements and scattered parts acquire a focus that is more in the crop than in the lens (since the ’70s she has been more or less printing the entire frame in color). At least two versions exist of a 1938 street scene of a group of children playing with a large empty mirror frame. One appears to be the image full frame; the other is more drastically cropped to emphasize the plane, which holds in place an almost mannerist jumble of figures and spaces. The mixture of improvisational immediacy and editing for effect virtually replicates the search for a painterly egress from the restrictive Cubist syntax that dominated American abstract art at the time.

More crucially, however, Levitt is Modern—or Modernist—in a social, one might say ethnic, sense. Levitt is a New York Jew. Modernism may not have been the conversion experience for her that it was for so many Jewish artists and intellectuals, but it certainly encouraged a degree of independence that had, until then, been denied many Jews, especially women. Born in 1913 in Bensonhurst, in the borough of Brooklyn, she moved to the Yorkville section of Manhattan in the early ’30s, when she began her career as an independent photographer. Yorkville was the center of New York’s German community, but Levitt seems not to have been asked by either Phillips or Hambourg about pro-German attitudes or even Nazi activity there. Nor do they note the irony of a young Jewish street photographer, female at that, exploring East Harlem, where she taught briefly under the Federal Art Project in 1937, and photographing ghetto culture at the very moment Germany was gearing up for the Final Solution.3 In this context, Levitt’s origins in the Jewish-Italian community of Bensonhurst, the scene of a tragic racial killing two years ago, deepen the irony, just as her move, in the ’60s, to Greenwich Village, where she still lives, ratifies and concludes the lengthy process of her “modernization” at just about the time post-Modernism began its criticism of the movement and the values so instrumental to her liberation.

I am not pointing to a particular Jewish coloration in Levitt’s photographs, but as a Jew only 12 years her junior, I am saying that her photographs are about a lot more than child’s play. I see in them what Barthes saw in an old fading photograph—“a sentiment as certain as remembrance.” It is more a tribal than a personal sentiment I detect, and I recognize with a certainty of remembrance the narrative Levitt is recounting in her photographs. To all intents and purposes it shows me the face—figuratively speaking—of the modern diaspora, or the sense of it that Jews in the United States carry with them as a sort of lugubrious heritage and that Levitt has transposed into the American experience. Levitt’s parents were both Russian Jews, though her mother, 15 years younger than her husband, was American born. In Bensonhurst, depicted by Hambourg as a tidy, tree-lined neighborhood, Levitt was far away from the Lower East Side in which most immigrant Jews, along with the Italians and the Irish, settled. But in moving to Manhattan, she became something of an emigrée herself in a Bohemia with idealistic and egalitarian values similar to those of the immigrants she had left behind. Levitt’s Harlem is a psychodrama of cross-cultural identification that sensitized her to the boredom of a group of young blacks hanging out as aimless as the alley cat nearby, while in another image, an especially striking one, she depicts a decaying urban Parthenon upon whose crumbling entablature, supported by two battered pillars, some children have climbed, their mock battle replacing ancient heroics in a frieze of simulated victory over their own circumstances.

Levitt’s ghetto blacks, whites, and Hispanics, her working-class neighbors and mothers, haggard but loving, do not seem to be crowded into vile tenements; nor do the neighborhoods swarm with the activity of sheer masses of people, as they do in late-19th-century images of the Lower East Side. Labor having won some equity, there is, if not leisure, some time for reflection and neighborliness; but the interracial mix, especially of children, works mostly in games, and the subliminal or simply immanent presence of deprivation hovers in the air like the soap bubbles, in one photograph, that ascend like vanishing dreams over the heads of the young children on some sort of outing. In other images, kids wait in their Halloween masks for someone to take the lead in their timid “rumble” of glee, or, like little refugees, console each other while their elders, some swollen or frail with age, rest from their labors, wrapped in shtetl-like indifference to the “outside” world downtown.

The historical status of photography is more secure than that of much, if not most, Modernist art. Certainly, post-Modernism’s rabid anti-Modernism does not challenge photography as it does plastic art. This is probably because of photography’s innate coherence as representation. The reaction of Levitt’s generation against pictorialist estheticism and “art” photography, which led to the general emphasis on the documentary element, was, nevertheless, as artistic as it was social in its intent. The photograph had to be photographic first and foremost. Indeed, the paradigm was not “Modernism” but representation. When Solomon-Godeau insists that post-Modern photographers “share an obdurate resistance to formal analysis [not again!] or placement within the modernist paradigm,”4 she is seeking to justify a mode of representation that reduces photography to mere illustration. Ironically, the results may be the most “artistic” photography yet and, when ideologically elaborated upon, no less reductive politically. The multicultural agenda that has emerged under post-Modernism ignores Jewishness as an exhausted strategic moral issue—like Modernism itself. It virtually reduces the Holocaust to an episode in the history of taste.

In Levitt’s photographs Jewishness, as I have tried to show, is not concerned with ethnicity as such. It is the metaphoric fulcrum for a universal typology of human tenacity in the face of existential adversity and its mockery of all forms of human and moral value. An attempt, then, to ignore the “Modernist paradigm” is fraught with more than esthetic assumptions, since representation is about what can, not what should, be represented. The metastasis of mechanical reproduction throughout pictorial art, especially post-Modern photography of the fabricated, appropriationist kind, actually. obscures rather than resolves the complex issues of representation that have vexed Western art since the late 18th century, when all forms of narrative became problematical. Romanticism evolved from the strained historical narratives of Neoclassicism, while photography slowly infiltrated and compromised Romanticism by paving the way for academic art.

It may be that the durability of the photographic medium rests on its capacity to infuse its representation of the world with allegorized sentiment by investing information with the capacity to evoke “the certainty of remembrance.” As the photographs of Levitt and her canonical contemporaries demonstrate, the “straight” photograph, which it turns out is really not so “straight” after all, remains unsurpassed.

Sidney Tillim is an artist and critic who lives in New York. He teaches at Bennington College in Vermont.

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NOTES

1. Abigail Solomon-Godeau, “Photography After Art Photography,” in Photography at the Dock: Essays in Photographic History, Institutions, and Practices, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991, p. 113.

2. See Sandra Phillips. “Helen Levitt’s New York,” and Maria Morris Hambourg, “Helen Levitt: A Life in Part,” in Helen Levitt, exhibition catalogue, San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1991.

3. Phillips quotes at length from Alfred Kazin’s A Walker in the City (1958), comparing Levitt’s vision of the urban streets with Kazin’s descriptions of Brooklyn, especially Brownsville. But Kazin’s perspective is that of a Jewish boy discovering the city, never forgetting that he is a Jew, a perspective that Levitt does not share. Kazin’s third volume of memoirs, published in 1978, was, in fact, entitled New York Jew.

4. Solomon-Godeau, p. 114.

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