Helen Levitt

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For the screenwriter of the same name, see Helen Slote Levitt.
Helen Levitt
Born August 31, 1913 (1913-08-31)
Brooklyn, New York, United States
Died March 29, 2009 (2009-03-30) (aged 95)
New York, New York, United States
Nationality American
Known for Photography
Cover art for Levitt's book Crosstown (2002).
Cover art for Levitt's book Slide Show (2005).

Helen Levitt (August 31, 1913 – March 29, 2009)[1][2] 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."[3]

Early Life and Career[edit]

Levitt grew up in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, NY. Her father was a Russian-Jewish immigrant with a wholesale knit-goods business while her mother was a bookkeeper before marriage. She dropped out of high school and started working for J. Florian Mitchell, a commercial portrait photographer in the Bronx, in 1931. There, she learned how to develop photos in the darkroom. She wanted to do something in the arts, but she “could not draw well.” She saw the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, a large influencer on her career, at the Julian Levy Gallery and for the first time saw photography as art. She learned composition by looking at paintings in museums, while also familiarizing herself with the works of the members of the Film and Photo League. She practiced by photographing her mother’s friends with a used Voigtländer camera.

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, the favorite of Cartier-Bresson, 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.[4]

After In the Street, she started taking more street photography in Spanish Harlem and the Lower East side. During the 1940's, the lack of air conditioning meant people were outside more, which invested her in street photography.[5] Her work was first published in the Fortune magazine's July 1939 issue.

Levitt received her first grant in 1946 from the Museum of Modern Art.[6] In 1959 and 1960, she received two grants from Guggenheim Foundation for her pioneering work in color photography.[7] In 1965 she published her first major collection, A Way of Seeing.[8] 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.[9] However, she felt more comfortable working with black and white, as she gave up color photography in the 1990s. In 1976, she was a Photography Fellow of the National Endowment for the Arts.[10]


The new photography section of the Museum of Modern Art included Levitt's work in its inaugural exhibition. in July 1939[11] 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.[11] She is a 2008 recipient of the Francis Greenburger award for excellence in the arts.[12]

Selected Retrospectives[edit]

Connections to Other Artists[edit]

Levitt's influence from Cartier-Bresson was not only from viewing his work in galleries, but also working with him in person. He once took her on a photoshoot with him.[13]

Levitt also had a known connection with Walker Evans. In 1937, she showed him her photographs of children playing. He found interest in them, and so from 1938-1939 they worked together, roaming the streets and taking photos. It has been written that “the only photographers Evans ‘felt had something original to say were Cartier-Bresson, Helen Levitt and himself.’”

On the same day that she showed her photographs to Evans, she met James Agee, who was an influence on her and also introduced her to poker. The two of them worked along with Janice Loeb, her later sister-in-law,[13] on documentary films. Loeb also introduced Levitt to Luis Buñuel, whom she had her first film job with as an editor. Jeff Rosenheim, whom Levitt met at a showing of her work in Yale, also became a friend and joined her and Agee’s poker group. She was also friends with Thomas Roma, the director of photography and Columbia University for nearly 25 years.[5]

Later Life and Death[edit]

Levitt lived in New York City and remained active as a photographer for nearly 70 years. However, she expressed lament at the change of New York City scenery:

"I go where there's a lot of activity. Children used to be outside. Now the streets are empty. People are indoors looking at television or something."[7]

She had to give up making her own prints in the 1990s due to sciatica, which made standing and carrying her heavy Leica difficult, causing her to switch to a small, automatic Contax. She was born with Meniere’s syndrome, an inner-ear disorder that caused her to “[feel] wobbly all [her] life.” She also had a fatal case of pneumonia in the 1940's or 1950's.[1] Levitt lived a personal and quiet life. She seldom gave interviews and was generally very introverted. She never married, living along with her yellow tabby Blinky[5] until, at the age of 95, she passed away in her sleep on March 29th, 2009.

Published collections of Levitt's photographs[edit]


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 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).[15] Levitt's other film credits include the cinematography on The Savage Eye (1960),[16] 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."[4]

List of Films[edit]


  1. ^ a b 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. 
  2. ^ Rourke, Mary (April 1, 2009). "Helen Levitt dies at 95; New York street photographer of poignant dramas". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved April 1, 2009. 
  3. ^ Strauss, David Levi (October 1997). "Helen Levitt: International Center for Photography - exhibition". Artforum. 
  4. ^ a b 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. 
  5. ^ a b c "Helen Levitt". The Telegraph. 23 April 2009. Retrieved March 11, 2017. 
  6. ^ Times, Special To The New York (1977-05-15). "CAMERA VIEW". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2017-03-11. 
  7. ^ a b Loke, Margarett (2009-03-30). "Helen Levitt, Who Captured New York Street Life, Dies at 95". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2017-03-11. 
  8. ^ Levitt, Helen (1989). A Way of Seeing: Third Edition. Duke University Press. ISBN 978-0-8223-1005-1. 
  9. ^ Levitt, Helen (2005). Slide Show: The Color Photographs of Helen Levitt. powerHouse Books. ISBN 978-1-57687-252-9. 
  10. ^ "Helen Levitt". International Center of Photography. 2017-02-04. Retrieved 2017-03-11. 
  11. ^ a b Hopkinson, Amanda (April 3, 2009). "Obituary - Helen Levitt: Award-winning New York photographer noted for street scenes and social realism". The Guardian. 
  12. ^ a b "Helen Levitt" (PDF). Jackson Fine Art. Retrieved March 11, 2017. 
  13. ^ a b Boxer, Sarah (April 8, 2004). "Capturing Little Dramas With a Click; Helen Levitt's Pictures Speak for Themselves". The New York Times. Retrieved March 11, 2017. 
  14. ^ Aperture number 151: Photographers on photographers: with selections by Eve Arnold, Richard Avedon, Harry Callahan, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Eikoh Hosoe, Helen Levitt, Inge Morath. New York, NY: Aperture Foundation. 1998-01-01. ISBN 0893817732. 
  15. ^ Mathews, Scott (2008-08-06). "John Cohen in Eastern Kentucky: Documentary Expression and the Image of Roscoe Halcomb During the Folk Revival". Southern Spaces. 
  16. ^ Jackson, Benjamin T. (Summer 1960). "The Savage Eye". Film Quarterly. 13 (4): 53–57. doi:10.1525/fq.1960.13.4.04a00160. 
  17. ^ Williams, Deane (March 2012). "Helen Levitt". Senses of Cinema (62).  A critical review of Levitt's filmmaking career.
  18. ^ Barsam, Richard Meran (1992). Nonfiction Film: A Critical History. Indiana University Press. p. 418. ISBN 978-0-253-20706-7. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]