by Helen Levitt
Foam Fotografiemuseum Amsterdam
Photography, though it trades primarily in arresting time, has never really been still. What is fashionable warps and weaves, technologies rise and fall, and following a raucous 20th century that witnessed a chemical curiosity rise to the status of art, we see photography’s long and entertaining argument with itself continuing unabated.
Despite endless heaving changes, the fundamental foundations of image making cannot be ignored. John Szarkowski said it thusly: “It is a matter of surrounding with a frame a portion of one’s cone of vision, while standing in the right place at the right time.”
Now, what finds its way into that frame is largely up to the photographer, but there is another player. To consistently create good work, a photographer must be calm and deliberate enough to tune in to serendipity’s quiet frequency. Helen Levitt, whose exhibition In the Street is on view at Foam_Fotografiemuseum through 18 January, is just such a specimen: an immense talent, capable of finding the proper place and time, all while listening for luck.
Dominating this exhibition are images of Levitt’s hometown of New York City, forever the subject of her fascination. (Well, nearly forever; she continues to work today, at age ninety-five.) While the ’30s and ’40s found the city inundated with amazing photographers, Levitt’s vision stood out. Abbot and Evans (to name only two) caught moments of human interest, but mostly recorded the dizzying architectural changes of the era. Levitt, above all, chose to celebrate people. Though the stoops, doorways, sidewalks, streets, and sandlots of Levitt’s images scream New York, the immensity of the city fades before the uniqueness of its denizens.
Evidence of Levitt’s stylistic visual anthropology emerges via images of children’s chalk drawings upon Manhattan pavement. The comparison to cave paintings is obvious; what thrills is Levitt’s realization.
Despite her native status, Levitt managed to attempt an honorable objectivity, deeming this aspect New York culture worthy of preservation. Lucky for us she did – the 1940s were a time when living in some parts of Manhattan was more a sentence than a privilege.
Peculiar is the sight of today’s hot real estate as a tattered slum.
Despite the intense economic changes that have swept over New York in recent years, the city remains a stage for myriad characters. Levitt presents New York in the 1940s as quite the menagerie: sooty kids, clad in wool and hamming it up for her lens, a regal-looking young gal in a fur coat standing before a sign hawking twenty-five cent spaghetti. Perfectly encapsulating photography’s long fascination with New York, these images show the vibrant streets as places where visual gifts wait to be captured. Be patient, look intensely, listen to your senses, and keep your finger on the shutter button.
Levitt’s color images show another side of her love of curious seeing.
The addition of color to her impeccable compositions can be breath taking; the images positively soar when rendered as sumptuous dye transfer prints. In one, a pudgy boy dressed in tube socks (navy blue stripes), shorts (powder blue), and a too-tight t-shirt (azure), looks skyward. Standing in the cool light of open shade, a poodle mimics his gaze, as does a plastic goose in a nearby window. In another window, a reflection in bold, red text: “YDNAC”. The evocative color and harmony of these elements makes this boy’s daydream a sugary spectacle; we realize that this photography straddles the line between total happenstance and careful choreography.
Levitt’s color photos show a nuanced understanding and use New York’s muted shades of brown stone and cement grey as effectively as more vibrant hues. In an image labeled “NY 1971″ (none of the exhibition images bear titles; but all identify a place and year), we find a man overwhelmed by the weight of a stuffed bag he’s carrying on his back.
There’s very little color in the scene, but it goes far to shape the
mood: we feel the dark weight of the city, and we join one persons struggle within the shadows of those concrete canyons.
Do not miss the room of small matted prints, most not larger than frames on a contact sheet. They’re tiny, but within them we glimpse Levitt’s process as she follows a scene. Photography persists in its infatuation with the decisive moment, but these images reveal many such slivers of time. It is the photographer’s edit that makes them decisive.
Nor should one skip her film In the Street, looping on a small screen and featuring her motion picture footage from New York in the late 1940s. After spending time with the still images, watching them move was overwhelming. Quickly came the astonished realization that the neatly arranged happenings of her photographs were plucked from teeming, non-stop action.
Helen Levitt’s work is the combination of patience and serendipity.
Her images ring with the clean tone of beautiful graphic design, but it is much more than the pleasant arrangement of objects in two-dimensional space. These photographs show a fascination with humanity and employ color, line, and form in the hope that they can reveal a greater truth or – at the very least – provide fodder for contemplation and perhaps a deeper understanding of people, place, and time.