Paul Greenfield MFA, ARPS

Helen Levitt (1913 - 2009)

Street Hunters

Helen Levitt 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 was born in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, NY. Her mother was a bookkeeper before her marriage to her father, a Russian-Jewish immigrant who ran a wholesale knit-goods business. She dropped out of high school and in 1931 she learned how to develop photos in the darkroom when she began working for J. Florian Mitchell, a commercial portrait photographer in the Bronx. She saw the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, a large influencer on her career, at the Julien Levy Gallery and for the first time saw photography as art. She practiced by photographing her mother’s friends with a used Voigtländer camera.

While teaching art classes to children in the mid-1930s, 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 (with a right-angle viewfinder) and began to photograph these chalk drawings, 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 continued taking more street photographs mainly in East Harlem but also in the Garment District and on the Lower East Side, all in Manhattan. During the 1930s to 1940s, the lack of air conditioning meant people were outside more, which invested her in street photography. 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. In 1959 and 1960, she received two grants from Guggenheim Foundation for her pioneering work in color photography. In 1965 she published her first major collection, A Way of Seeing. Much of her work in color from 1959 to 1960 was stolen in a 1970 burglary of her East 12th 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. However, she felt equally comfortable working with black and white, as she did both in the 1980s. In 1976, she was a Photography Fellow of the National Endowment for the Arts.

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