Helen Levitt (August 31, 1913 – March 29, 2009) was an American photographer. She was particularly noted for "street photography" around New York City, and has been called "the most celebrated and least known photographer of her time."
Levitt grew up in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, NY. She dropped out of high school and went to work for a commercial photographer. There, she taught herself photography. While teaching art classes to children in 1937, Levitt became intrigued with the transitory chalk drawings that were part of the New York children's street culture of the time. She purchased a Leica camera and began to photograph these works, as well as the children who made them. The resulting photographs were ultimately published in 1987 as In The Street: chalk drawings and messages, New York City 1938–1948.
She associated with Walker Evans in 1938-39. She enjoyed early success. In July 1939, the new photography section of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City included Levitt's work in its inaugural exhibition. In 1943, Nancy Newhall curated her first solo exhibition "Helen Levitt: Photographs of Children" there. Her next major shows were in the 1960s; Amanda Hopkinson suggests that this second wave of recognition was related to the feminist rediscovery of women's creative achievements.
In the late 1940s, Levitt made two documentary films with Janice Loeb and James Agee: In the Street (1948) and The Quiet One (1948). Levitt, along with Loeb and Sidney Meyers, received an Academy Award nomination for the screenplay of The Quiet One. Levitt was active in film making for nearly 25 years; her final film credit is as an editor for John Cohen's documentary The End of an Old Song (1972). Levitt's other film credits include the cinematography on The Savage Eye (1960), which was produced by Ben Maddow, Meyers, and Joseph Strick, and also as an assistant director for Strick and Maddow's film version of Genet's play The Balcony (1963). In her biographical essay, Maria Hambourg writes that Levitt "has all but disinherited this part of her work."
In 1959 and 1960, Levitt received two Guggenheim Foundation grants to take color photographs on the streets of New York, and she returned to still photography. In 1965 she published her first major collection, A Way of Seeing. Much of her work in color from the 1960s was stolen in a 1970 burglary of her East 13th Street apartment. The remaining photos, and others taken in the following years, can be seen in the 2005 book Slide Show: The Color Photographs of Helen Levitt. In 1976, she was a Photography Fellow of the National Endowment for the Arts.
Published collections of Levitt's photographs
- Levitt, Helen; Agee, James (1989) . A Way of Seeing: Third Edition. Duke University Press. ISBN 978-0-8223-1005-1.
- Levitt, Helen (1987). In the Street: Chalk Drawings and Messages, New York City, 1938-1948. Duke University Press. ISBN 0-8223-0771-5.
- Levitt, Helen; Hambourg, Maria Morris; Phillips, Sandra S. (1991). Phillips, Sandra S., ed. Helen Levitt. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. ISBN 0-918471-22-2.
- Levitt, Helen; Oles, James (1997). Helen Levitt: Mexico City. W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0-393-04549-8.
- Levitt, Helen; Prose, Francine (2001). Crosstown. powerHouse Books. ISBN 1-57687-103-7.
- Levitt, Helen; Gopnik, Adam (2004). Here and There. powerHouse Books. ISBN 1-57687-165-7.
- Levitt, Helen; Szarkowski, John (2005). Slide Show: The Color Photographs of Helen Levitt. powerHouse Books. ISBN 978-1-57687-252-9.
- Levitt, Helen; Evans, Walker (March 2008). Helen Levitt. powerHouse Books. ISBN 978-1-57687-429-5.
- In the Street (1948): cinematographer.
- The Quiet One (1948): cinematographer and writer.
- The Savage Eye (1960): cinematographer.
- The Balcony (1963): assistant director.
- An Affair of the Skin (1963): co-producer with Ben Maddow.
- In the Year of the Pig (1968): co-editor with Hannah Moreinis.
- The End of an Old Song (1972): editor.
- Loke, Margaret (March 30, 2009). "Helen Levitt, Who Froze New York Street Life on Film, Is Dead at 95". The New York Times. Retrieved March 30, 2009.
- Rourke, Mary (April 1, 2009). "Helen Levitt dies at 95; New York street photographer of poignant dramas". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved April 1, 2009.
- Strauss, David Levi (October 1997). "Helen Levitt: International Center for Photography - exhibition". Artforum.
- Hambourg, Maria Morris (1991). "Helen Levitt: A Life in Part". In Phillips, Sandra S. Helen Levitt. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. pp. 45–63. ISBN 0-918471-22-2.
- Hopkinson, Amanda (April 3, 2009). "Obituary - Helen Levitt: Award-winning New York photographer noted for street scenes and social realism". The Guardian.
- Mathews, Scott (2008-08-06). "John Cohen in Eastern Kentucky: Documentary Expression and the Image of Roscoe Halcomb During the Folk Revival". Southern Spaces.
- Jackson, Benjamin T. (Summer 1960). "The Savage Eye". Film Quarterly 13 (4): 53–57.
- Levitt, Helen (1989). A Way of Seeing: Third Edition. Duke University Press. ISBN 978-0-8223-1005-1.
- Levitt, Helen (2005). Slide Show: The Color Photographs of Helen Levitt. powerHouse Books. ISBN 978-1-57687-252-9.
- Barsam, Richard Meran (1992). Nonfiction Film: A Critical History. Indiana University Press. p. 418. ISBN 978-0-253-20706-7.
- 24 images at the lensculture website.
- Online portfolio and biography at the Laurence Miller Gallery website.
- Block, Melissa (2002). "Helen Levitt's Indelible Eye", audio interview from the All Things Considered radio program, 17 January 2002, National Public Radio.
- Boxer, Sarah (2004). "Capturing Little Dramas With a Click; Helen Levitt's Pictures Speak for Themselves," The New York Times, 8 April 2004.
- Dikant, Thomas (2003). "Helen Levitt: 10 Photographs". Philologie in Netz 25: 1–30. Archived from the original on 2009-03-30. Critical study of ten of Levitt's photographs. Dikant also discusses the influences on Levitt, including Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ben Shahn, and Walker Evans.
- Helen Levitt at the Internet Movie Database. Note that there is occasionally confusion of Levitt's film credits with those of Helen Slote Levitt.
- Helen Levitt - Daily Telegraph obituary
- Obituary in The Independent by Marcus Williamson
- Helen Levitt - Galerie f 5,6