on March 27, 2004
New York's Photographer
Helen Levitt, born in Brooklyn in 1913, took up photography when she found she couldn't draw. For seventy years. she took her cameras down the New York streets where tourists seldom wander. She photographed janitors, children, pushcarts, subway riders, and dogs.
Crosstown (Powerhouse Books, 192 pages, $75), a collection of many of her best pictures, became an instant classic when it was published in 2001. Now her publisher has followed up with the less imposing, less expensive, but equally remarkable Here and There (Powerhouse Books,120 pages, $40). It's a selection of 120 black-and-white photographs, also taken mostly in New York City. The book is graced with an especially perceptive foreword by New Yorker critic Adam Gopnik.
Yorkville. Spanish Harlem. The Lower East Side. Levitt's people abide in a landscape without foliage: a desert of sidewalks, store fronts, and empty lots. Their lives slide by unnoticed, unpraised. Yet their faces are maps of emotional nuance. There's half a boy and half a man under that fedora. You would not want to mess with that moving man in the middle of the trio. Note the nearly penitent posture on that big guy in his undershirt getting the word from that tiny little dog.
There is not a single picture here that has much of real interest "going on." Yet everything's going on, all around, all the time, here and there. Levitt possesses that rarest of gifts, an original temperament. The artist who look these pictures knows the world will always be full of dead cats and kids bawling their eyes out. She also knows how gratifying its daily illuminations can be.
Levitt requires neither celebrity nor flamboyance (much less decadence) to give us portraits as emotionally complex as drawings by Durer or Rembrandt. In this sense, she is the quiet opposite of every superstar New York photographer from Avedon to Warhol.
And as anyone who has lived there knows, these are authentic New Yorkers. They may be invisible to the crowds uptown, but what pride there is in that profile, what resignation sulks in those eyes, what mischief electrifies that grin.
It's as though each of Levitt's pictures had its own wire that plugged directly into a tiny but precise aspect of the human condition. Her skill with her Leica is such that we are made to stand in her sensible shoes, to see through her comprehending eyes. And so we are transported to a spot in the sidewalk across from a building that was torn down forty years ago. And it's more real than anything in Vanity Fair.
Levitt's pictures send a message to serious photographers. "You don't have to get outside your own life," they assure us. "All the material you can handle is right down the street."
CAMERA ARTS magazine
Well, if you're looking at this book, you probably know who Helen Levitt is and you can probably imagine the amazing photographs that are in this book.
Helen Levitt was one of the pioneers of street photography, a self taught photographer who eventually began working with Cartier-Bresson, another pioneer of street photography. Mind you, these two photographers represented REAL street photography, not the (pardon my language) crap we see today from the college kids running around with their $6,000 Leica that Mommy or Daddy bought them. Street photography, unfortunately, has become WAYYYYYYYY overdone and destroyed by people with no true "eye" for it. Now we just see photo after photo of homeless people, stray animals, homeless people with stray animals, etc. etc.
Anyway, sorry to get off topic a bit there. My point is, BUY THIS BOOK. This is REAL street photography where talent and hard work are demonstrated through these beautiful prints. And if you truly want to learn what real street photography is all about, this book is a great starting point.