The Photography of Helen Levitt
Helen Levitt was one of this century’s great photographers. Were I to say this about her great friend Walker Evans, it would seem like a tautology, rather like saying that Shakespeare was an important writer. Readers can judge for themselves why this should be the case, why one should need to say this about Helen.
In 2000 I was asked to write an introduction to Helen's book, Crosstown. It was among the best jobs—possibly the very best job—I’ve ever had. We were introduced by our mutual friend, the gifted photographer Judy Linn. Also Helen was an avid and serious reader, and another dear mutual friend, Richard Deveraux, who has worked for many years at the Strand bookstore, used to bring her my books. I was enormously flattered that she liked my work.
Every Sunday for several months I would climb the steps to the top-floor apartment on 12th Street where she lived with her cat, and we would look at her photos, going through her work in chronological order. No adjective is strong enough to convey the excitement of studying those images while Helen recalled the circumstances in which they were taken, and talked about photography in general. Year later I wrote a novel that included, among its characters, a photographer loosely based on Brassai. But much of what he says in my book were things I’d heard from Helen, statements that I could still hear, uttered with Helen’s utterly individual mixture of toughness, certitude, curiosity, and glee. “You have to do your legwork” was her typically terse and telling verdict on what it takes to be a street photographer.
The images in the library’s exhibition Public Eye are characteristic of what was so marvelous about her work. The deceptively effortless sense of composition, the bold diagonal at which the children cross the overgrown lot, the eloquent way in which each child’s individual self expresses itself in that child’s walk, in that child’s place in a line of children—even when we are seeing the children from behind. And oh, the gladiatorial drama of those boys re-enacting some mythic or Hollywood combat! Few photographers—few artists—have so gracefully conveyed their deep interest in, and respect for, the complication and the beauty that accrues to children simply by virtue of their being children. Few artists have demonstrated such compassion, such appreciation—and such a profound sense of amusement—for the sort of ordinary people who had the good fortune to be there when Helen Levitt was doing her legwork on their street.
Francine Prose is an acclaimed author of over three dozen works of nonfiction and fiction. Her most recent novel is Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932.