New York

Helen Levitt

Helen Levitt may well be the most celebrated and least known photographer of her time. Even though she had her first solo show at MoMA before she turned thirty, and is now, at age eighty-four, widely recognized as a modern master, much of the current viewing public continues either to undervalue her work or to take it for granted. Even those who claim to know her photographs well will admit they haven’t looked at them closely for years.

Part of this is due to the way the work has been framed in terms of the institution of art photography. Her first show at MoMA in 1943, “Helen Levitt: Photographs of Children,” was oddly and inhospitably paired with “Eliot Porter: Birds in Color.” Over the years, Levitt’s work has acquired an unfortunate “Family of Man” patina; it is often read as a kind of sentimental realism—as a nostalgic chronicle of street life in old Harlem, of children at play—and the photographs themselves incorporate their own naturalistic camouflage. At first glance, they appear to be as stylistically innocent and guileless as their often young subjects. It is only after prolonged and repeated viewing that these images begin to reveal their complexity and depth.

Levitt’s work deserves to be rescued, and “Crosstown,” curated by Ellen Handy, provided a new perspective with a great economy of means: no narrative titles, no didactic labels, only the skillful juxtaposition of images. In each of four galleries, photographs were loosely grouped by themes, but it was the variations within these categories that emerged. The playful sequencing revealed hidden connections among the works and brought out intricate subtleties. By freely mixing in early black and white images from the ’30s and ’40s with more recent work in both black and white and color (as well as the astonishing film In the Street, made by Levitt, James Agee, and Janice Loeb in 1945–46, and recently screened at Documenta X), “Crosstown” emphasized the continuity of Levitt’s sixty-year career. It also served as a useful corrective to the retrospective organized by the Metropolitan and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1991, in which the tendency to separate black and white from color, earlier from later images, perpetuated misleading dichotomies.

The first photograph in “Crosstown” was the last one in A Way of Seeing, a book produced by Levitt with Agee in the mid ’40s but published almost twenty years later. In this image, a little girl walks barefoot out of the street toward a woman on a stoop, while above and behind her a liberated fire hydrant sprays a fog of water. The child is wet, and a bit fearful, hurrying toward the rescuing woman. Both the eyes of the child and the woman’s body are shadowed, their gestures the only expressive clues. The girl walks stiffly, pigeon-toed, and holds her closed hands out in front of her for balance. Her raised arms echo the woman’s, which are stretched out in greeting. The wet street is a mirror—as above, so below—as well as a site of baptism.

Levitt’s compositions are mostly centrifugal—significant details often occur at their edges. Even when there is a central figure, what is going on around it—what the subjects project—is what matters. This is why Levitt’s restoration of her cropped early pictures to full frame is so instructive.

Levitt’s kids are not those of Larry Clark or Jim Goldberg, but neither are they all sweetness and light. Innocence brings pain and fear along with delight and joy, as it continually runs up against the constraints of experience. And innocents crave experience more than anything. Although Levitt’s work never fit the definitions of social documentary, anyone who claims these photographs are not political is operating with a severely limited sense of that term. There are times in these images when innocence comes into conflict with power, as kids are slapped or dressed down by imperious adults, caught in that politically constitutive moment when imagination collides with reality. Photographs of people are traces of relationships, especially between photographer and photographed. It’s what can’t be faked. Levitt is often able to articulate these relationships without showing people’s eyes, or even their faces—only their suspended movements and the geometry of things seen. In a 1945 image, four little girls stroll up Park Avenue away from the camera, their faces in profile against the gray stream of the street. In unison, they turn their heads to the left, where six soap bubbles arrange themselves against a stone block wall like whole notes on a staff. It is the best moment, the only possible moment for this image. If anything in the frame were moved, it would diminish the effect.

One of the things that makes Levitt’s photographs relevant today is that they exhibit an insistently unspectacular way of seeing. Her street society is the society of the unspectacle—a vision of ordinary virtue. As with any old photograph, there is a certain element of nostalgia. But in Levitt’s case it is experienced more as homesickness, as a longing independent of geographic displacement. For those of us whose attentiveness to Levitt’s photographs had lapsed into passive familiarity, this show was a revelation.

David Levi Strauss contributes frequently to Artforum.