Exhibition review

Helen Levitt: In The Street

by Rachel McHale | 19 January 2022

A mother beckons to her young child as a cab drives along the road. Two children lean calmly and contently against a sweet dispenser outside a grocery store. Boys dressed in oversized suits rest on steps, cigarettes in their mouths. Beautifully and tenderly captured by photographer Helen Levitt these scenes, typical of her photography, feature in a new retrospective of her work at The Photographer’s Gallery.

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Helen Levitt New York, 1940 © Film Documents LLC/Thomas Zander Gallery, Cologne

Split across two floors, this exhibition showcases more than 130 works spanning seven decades. Influenced by French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose work includes expansive street shots, Levitt bought a Leica and set about capturing her native city of New York. The resulting snaps are at once playful and revealing, honest and humorous.

Helen Levitt New York, 1971 (C) Film Documents L LC Courtesy Galerie Thomas Zander, Cologn

Helen Levitt New York, 1971 © Film Documents LLC/Thomas Zander Gallery, Cologne

Thematically organised, the retrospective sheds light on Levitt’s various preoccupations and the rich gamut of topics her works explore. ‘Children at Play’ is one of such themes; photographs of children playing with reckless abandon are prominent in her œuvre. Seemingly innocent, children create clever cardboard structures and chase one another in the street. But this innocence is soon undercut as you notice they bear toy guns and sticks, threatening one another as the Second World War seeped into quotidian life. Awash with societal changes, Levitt’s photographs offer a pertinent reminder that the personal is political. Intellectually, amongst Levitt’s contemporaries, children’s games also seemed to offer a counterpoint to capitalism; as the children Levitt photograph appropriate objects found in the street, using their imaginations wildly, they appear somewhat distanced from gruelling consumer society.

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Helen Levitt New York, 1938 © Film Documents LLC/Thomas Zander Gallery, Cologne

The exhibition takes its title from one of Levitt’s forays into documentary film. The 16-minute silent film In The Street (created with filmmaker Janice Loeb and writer James Agee) is closely related to her photographic work, exploring street life in Spanish Harlem in the 1940s. Children play games, parents chat to one another outside shops, friends walk their dogs and inhabitants watch the scenes on the street unfold from their windows. The relationship between the moving image and the still image is underscored; the film documents the various movements and events that are distilled into just one moment in a photograph. Photobooks are also included in the retrospective, demonstrating Levitt’s use of various forms of media.

 

The process behind Levitt’s photographs also comes to the fore in this exhibition: we see how images were cropped to change the focus; how Levitt also experimented with colour photography; and the large number of photographs taken when shooting one scene. With regard to the latter, rolls of film with snapshots are featured as part of the exhibition. Framed together in rows, they invite the viewer to step forward and take a closer look, and maybe even attempt to figure out the story behind them.

 

Although most known for her photography in New York, Levitt’s photographs from a trip to Mexico – her only series of images taken outside her native city – reveal most strongly her political dedication. As she spent several months there in 1941, she captured the lives of the people living in the poorer neighbourhoods of Mexico City, with a focus once again on street photography. Documenting the change that industrialisation was bringing to the city, Levitt’s photographs are compelling.

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Helen Levitt New York, 1941 © Film Documents LLC/Thomas Zander Gallery, Cologne

The exhibition also showcases Levitt’s work in colour, underlining her role as a pioneer of colour photography. A film projector projects her slideshow onto the wall, showing familiar scenes of street life. A woman donning a blue marbled dress, sunglasses and a pink sunhat looks up, presumably trying to read travel times, whilst a woman in a brown floral dress to her right stares straight ahead, their suitcases behind them. Rich in tone and colour, these photographs highlight the vivacity of New York City. 

Helen Levitt New York, 1973 (C) Film Documents L LC Courtesy Galerie Thomas Zander, Cologn

Helen Levitt New York, 1973 © Film Documents LLC/Thomas Zander Gallery, Cologne

Curated by Walter Moser in collaboration with Anna Danneman, this retrospective provides a refreshing and comprehensive view of Levitt’s varied work. Levitt is not portrayed as simply a lyrical photographer, but also a cinematographer whose work is extensive and politically charged. Although her photographs are, excluding those taken in Mexico City, strongly rooted in her native New York, they simultaneously resonate with a larger audience. They capture people and the flow of daily life, trials and tribulations included. Celebrating the magic (or misery) of the prosaic, they remind us to look up, take our headphones out and really notice the little moments on a daily commute or stroll through the park.

 

On view at the Photographer’s Gallery until 13 February 2022.