Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Passing of Helen Levitt

New York-based photographer Helen Levitt died this past Sunday. She was 95 years old. If you think her name sounds familiar in the context of this blog, it's because in my recent interview with photographer Gerald Mocarsky, he cited one of her works as his favorite photographic image. Levitt was a Brooklyn girl, born in 1913 in Bensonhurst. Critics consider the highlight of her career to be during the late 1930s and early 1940s, although she was still producing documentary-style photography into the 1990s. The image you see here, New York (Boy with Toy Gun), dates from about 1939 and is in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Levitt became known for works such as this that capture street life in New York City. She would travel to areas of the City few middle-class whites visited, notably Harlem and the Lower East Side, and she would photograph everyday people doing everyday things. Her images speak to a time in New York history when the working class, immigrants, and the impoverished lived in these neighborhoods, both on these streets and in them as well. Her photos always seem so unplanned and naturalistic. A work such as this one may border on the sentimental because of the boy's clothes and sad face. But there is something haunting about this image, seeing a boy clutch a gun, uncertain how to handle it. This is a test of his future and his masculinity, as he stares off at someone, something, that obviously concerns him. It's as if he's waiting to be told what to do. He is frozen in uncertainty. His ebony skin glows from this image, framed by the whiteness that surrounds him in his shirt, in the street, and in the building behind him. This was a time of segregation, and this image is wrought with the angst of racism even though nothing violent is shown. Yet, it's also a stunning photograph of a precious black boy looking dazed by the world around him, just like any child in the City would be. Margarett Loke in The New York Times describes Levitt as a photographer "who caught fleeting moments of surpassing lyricism, mystery and quiet drama on the streets of her native New York." Loke emphasizes Levitt's ability to capture innocence, but notes also how she and her fellow photographers Walker Evans, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Ben Shahn all used their documentary photography to instill social reform. For more on Levitt's life, see Loke's obituary in the NYT, or the NPR audio clip interview with Levitt and an essay by Melissa Block.

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