PRINT December 1991


AS A CHILD, she refused to miss her Saturdays at the movies, even for a friend’s birthday party. As a young woman, she thought nothing of seeing a film six times if she was taken by it. By the time her own esthetic vision matured, Helen Levitt had already brought to it a lifetime of moviegoing.1

Levitt grew up with silent film; she came of age as movies made the transition to sound. There is, in fact, something of silent film in Levitt’s work: the broad physicality of the acting style, the looser narrative weighted toward the visual image, the experimental attempts to create visual analogues to music surface in her photography with concentrated refinement. Not surprisingly, Charlie Chaplin was an early and abiding favorite; but then, in later years, so was the Soviet filmmaker Alexander Dovzhenko.

As a young woman, Levitt embraced foreign films with enthusiasm. She was a regular at the Cameo on 44th Street and at Film and Photo League screenings at the New School for Social Research on 12th Street. An influential genre featured at these screenings was the “city symphony,” which, pieced together from diverse footage, depicted a day in the life of a city: Berlin (Walter Ruttman’s Berlin, Symphonie einer Grosstadt [Berlin, symphony of a great city, 1927]); Paris (Alberto Cavalcanti’s Rien que les heures [Nothing but time, 1926]); Moscow and Leningrad (Dziga Vertov’s The Man with the Movie Camera, 1929).

Radically innovative in form, technically dazzling, and full of cinematic playfulness, Vertov’s The Man with the Movie Camera is a recognized masterpiece of cinema. But for Levitt, the film was above all an invitation to photograph in the street. She was struck by Vertov’s fearlessness in filming anyone who caught his eye. Nevertheless, Vertov’s approach to his subject stands in contrast to Levitt’s delicacy. The Man with the Movie Camera is suffused with a sense of the camera’s prerogative, its right to go anywhere and to film anything. The footage is dotted with shots of people shielding their faces, ducking the camera, or enduring exposure with resigned embarrassment. The city symphony was woven from a multitude of anonymous strands, but in Levitt’s photographs the streets are anything but anonymous. Everyone in them stands in some relationship—be it physical, emotional, or spatial. In Levitt’s work, not everyone is liked, perhaps, but they are known.

Levitt recalls several other films of the ’20s as having affected her, including Germaine Dulac’s La Souriante Madame Beudet (The smiling Madame Beudet, 1922) and Dimitri Kirsanov’s Ménilmontant, 1925, French impressionist works notable for their evocative atmosphere and richly layered imagery. But it was two films of the ’30s that had the greatest influence on her eye: Dovzhenko’s 1935 Aerograd (American title: Frontier or Air City) and Jean Cocteau’s 1930 Le Sang d’un poète (Blood of a poet).

Aerograd was Dovzhenko’s second sound film, after the silent classics Arsenal, 1929, and Earth, 1930. The plot concerns the founding of a new city, Aerograd, which is to be a bastion of Soviet air power on the Siberian coast. The brave pioneers defend their town from the reactionaries and Japanese militarists who would destroy it. The film was shot on location in the taiga, the vast forestland of Siberia.

Dovzhenko was a master of lyrical cinema, with a poet’s sense of priorities, and despite its Socialist Realist plot, Aerograd is a dreamlike film. Its narrative is elliptical at best; Dovzhenko would abandon it without compunction for something that truly interested him, such as a lone samurai’s ritual sword dance in the forest. The film is graced with an astonishing and effective sound track, punctuated by ambient sound and sound effects, at a time when cinema was still learning to cope with sound as an element. The scene in which the traitor, facing execution, bids farewell to the taiga presents a remarkable unity of image and sound.

Levitt first saw Aerograd at the suggestion of Henri Cartier-Bresson. She returned to the Cameo to see it another four or five times. With its drifting narrative, haunting images, and poetic disregard for surface realities, the film was an ineffable influence, not so much on Levitt’s photography as on her sensibility.

Also an early sound film, Cocteau’s Le Sang d’un poète is structured as a series of loosely related, Surrealist vignettes. More than anything, it is a collection of fleeting, disorienting images, evocative and at times unearthly. Cocteau called it “a realistic documentary of unreal events.” As might be expected, the sequences most memorable to Levitt were those featuring children. In “Flying Lessons,” a young girl, wrapped with sleigh bells, is whipped by a cruel governess into ascending the wall over a mantelpiece, eventually reaching the ceiling. The jingling of the sleigh bells marks her tortuous ascent. The image stayed with Levitt, surfacing years later in her photograph of a boy shinning up the doorjamb of an abandoned apartment. In both moving film and still photograph there is a sense of a painstaking and arduous overcoming of gravity, and of ambiguous reward. In some of Levitt’s photographs, children do appear miraculously capable of flight; but here, as in Cocteau’s film, sheer effort and absurdity predominate.

The film’s closing scenes take place in a plazalike street, the site of a lethal snowball fight among schoolboys, a life-or-death card game (coolly played with a dead schoolboy under the table), and the descent of a devouring guardian angel with insectlike wings. Midway through, the street literally turns into a theater. The facade opposite fills with blasé, elegant theatergoers, who occupy the balconies as if they were loges. When the losing cardplayer shoots himself, the audience bursts into sustained applause.

Le Sang d’un poète is not Cocteau’s best film. Mannered and overwrought, it is nevertheless animated by the same original sensibility that would later create La Belle et la bête (Beauty and the beast, 1946) and Orphée (Orpheus, 1949). Levitt saw Le Sang d’un poète at a crucial time in her development as an artist. Its images remained with her, influencing the way she saw her own streets. Although Levitt never takes the theme of street-as-theater to Cocteau’s literal extreme, it illuminates her entire body of work. Cocteau’s film shares with Levitt’s work a distinctly uncondescending view of children. The schoolboys and the flying girl are not sweet. The boys smoke cigarettes, mercilessly gang up on each other, and are capable of great passions. Having been whipped into compliance, the girl is still fully capable of sticking her tongue out and thumbing her nose at the camera. A similar tone is struck in Jean Vigo’s Zéro de conduite (Zero for conduct, 1933), which Levitt admired for its cheerfully anarchic view of childhood, and its unexpected moments of grace.

In the 1940s Levitt and her friend Janice Loeb began filming around the city with a home movie camera. These explorations eventually matured into In the Street, 1952, a short lyrical film by the two in collaboration with James Agee. Whether from esthetic considerations or simple economics, In the Street is a silent film. Shot at 18 frames per second—silent speed—even today it is marketed with its musical score on an accompanying audio cassette. The film is reminiscent of the silent city-symphony films, but its scale is profoundly intimate. There is perhaps less of Dovzhenko or Cocteau here than in the photographs, but the influence of Chaplin is pronounced. The film pivots on movement: passing pedestrians wiping the screen with their motion, the dance of a mop counterpointing the walk of its owner, the gleeful running of countless children.

Levitt’s instincts as an artist guided her inside the movie theater as well as in the world, leading her to films that strengthened her sensibility and encouraged her eye. In looking at the films she valued most, one gains insight into Levitt’s work beyond the reach of language or logic. It is something like meeting the relatives of a close friend: one sees the differences, but is struck by the resemblances. What did Helen Levitt take from the movies she saw? There is really only one answer: what she needed.

Susan Delson is the former film coordinator and programmer for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. She is currently producing a film on magazine design and visual culture.



1. My thanks to Maria Morris Hambourg, cocurator of the exhibition “Helen Levitt,” whose catalogue essay “Helen Levitt: A Life in Part” (in Helen Levitt, exhibition catalogue, San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1991) was a valuable resource in the preparation of this piece.