New York

Helen Levitt

Sidney Janis Gallery

When you visit Helen Levitt at the Greenwich Village apartment where she has lived for many years, she tells you that she has nothing to say. Among the things she doesn’t have to say is her age, which is impossible to guess. A petite, handsome woman with clear features, few wrinkles and quick, nervous eyes, she probably hasn’t changed much since she was a girl hanging around with Walker Evans in the late 1930s. She claims that she and Evans seldom spoke about photography. Nobody did in those days. It wasn’t a subject of any urgency then. The one thing Helen will tell you is that for 20 years she did almost no photography whatsoever. From 1950 until 1970 she undertook only one project, color photography on a Guggenheim grant in 1959, and that work was subsequently stolen. She never considered becoming a photojournalist because in the 1940s she made a trip to Mexico and hated it—hated the traveling, the strangeness, the hassle and everything else that a career in photojournalism would have entailed. During much of the 1960s, she explains, she was ill. So no work got done then, either. She feels she has always had a very low energy level.

Helen Levitt is one of the great, neglected geniuses of modern photography, though you’d never guess it to talk to her. She is so modest and retiring about her work—so nearly a shy, charming homebody in the impression she makes—that only the neglect is apparent. It’s as if she had grown used to the inattention and now found. it more comfortable, more pleasing, than recognition. When you look at the photography itself, however, you realize that something doesn’t jibe. Here is this quiet, cautious woman telling you that she has hardly had the energy to photograph at all, and then here, too, are the pictures, bursting with life, daring, and an intense, crazy kind of vision.

Steadily from the late ’30s through the ’40s, Helen photographed in the “nabes” of New York. She went to Spanish Harlem, to the Lower East Side, wherever she found life on the street. As much as she may have disliked being in Mexico in 1941, she didn’t let that interfere with the photographs she made in Tacubaya outside Mexico City. The work she did there is as acute as that from Manhattan. She used a Leica outfitted with a Winkelsucher, a right-angle viewfinder that allowed her to move in close and make extraordinary friezes of human attitudes ranging across the frame from pathos to exuberance, from inquisitiveness to cretinism. Nothing that was human was foreign to her. She photographed the wild, violent games children played in the street and the graffiti they drew on the walls. She photographed the old. She photographed shopkeepers and gypsies and sharpies posing fatally in zoot suits and big fedora hats.

Her photography followed from Cartier-Bresson’s and anticipated Robert Frank’s, yet went its own way. In 1959 she returned to the same neighborhoods and did it all again in color; and when that work was stolen, she went back in the early 1970s and did it all over yet again. This is the woman with no energy that we’re talking about. She’s still taking photographs today, and they make you wonder why she bothers to conceal her birth date. In the recent photographs, colors become incidents on the street in the same way that a child leaping might have been in a photograph from the ’40s. These new photographs are just as agile as the original ones. Nobody would believe that they were made by a photographer who’s any older than Helen was 40 years ago.

In this show, there are 30 dye transfers and C-prints of the color work along with 107 new and vintage prints of the earlier black-and-white. While the color work lets us see how fresh and durable Levitt’s vision can be, the black-and-white makes us realize by how slender a thread the history of photography sometimes hangs. Among the most astonishing of the vintage prints are a number that are unique images. That is, no negative still exists from them. These prints in the show are all there is between this part of the history of photography and the Memory Chute.

It’s true that Levitt has had considerable recognition from museums, especially the Museum of Modern Art, where she first had a show in 1943. Yet the current exhibition is only the second gallery show she has had in New York in over 25 years. Unfortunate and unfair as this is, I don’t want to lament it too much. Helen made most of her photographs at a time when nobody except a few other photographers and James Agee cared about her work. She worked when the spirit moved her and had only the standards she set for herself. However regrettable that may have been, the leisure and isolation in which her work had to be done undoubtedly contributed to its quality. Now photography is hot. Any young photographer who doesn’t have a show every other year begins to get anxious. Feeling the pressure of the market, a photographer shows 50 images even though he only has six so far that are worth looking at. Levitt’s exhibition is a reproach to all this feverish, fretful, greedy activity going on in photography today.

The afternoon that I visited Levitt’s apartment, only available light from a skylight illuminated our conversation. It was a gray, overcast day and the light had the quality of a London winter in it, the sort of light one imagines in the rooms where Conrad’s The Secret Agent takes place. As afternoon gave way to evening, the light faded and the conversation trailed off into silence. Amid the encroaching shadows we became less and less distinct to each other. Though I sat quietly and tried to wait her out, Levitt had nothing more to say. I thought perhaps she was tired. Yet, in the near darkness, I could hear her fidgeting. She tamped out her cigarette and at once replaced it in her holder. She nibbled on some sunflower seeds. After a few moments she got up and crossed the floor to where a crazy little camera rested on a table. It’s a play camera that Saul Steinberg once made for her. She held it to her eye and began flicking the screen-door bolt Steinberg put on it for a shutter release. There was almost no light left and of course no film in the balsa wood camera. Helen moved about her living room making one imaginary negative after another.

Colin L. Westerbeck, Jr.