There are no installation views of the Projects exhibition in which Helen Levitt first presented her color photographs to MoMA’s public, for one simple reason: all forty pictures were projected onto the wall, fading as quickly as they appeared. The year was 1974, and Levitt was in the midst of a creative outburst—unusual not only because she was at an age when most people contemplate retirement, but also because until 1959 her career had developed entirely in shades of gray. I love these black-and-white images, and put up a whole wall of them in 2006-07, including the first photograph by Levitt ever acquired by MoMA, New York, way back in 1941.
In 1959, Levitt won a Guggenheim fellowship to expand upon her earlier investigations of life on the sidewalks and stoops of New York City with color film in her camera. Alas, her first decade’s worth of color work was stolen by a burglar! I can’t imagine how she managed to begin again, but she did, and by 1974 she had created enough new work to present it publicly. It would have been prohibitively expensive to make forty color prints for the Projects exhibition, but MoMA acquired one, and over the years we have continued to add more color work as opportunities present themselves. With these recent acquisitions, we finally have the depth to present a group of Levitt’s color pictures, and we intend to do so in our upcoming collection installation Pictures by Women: A History of Modern Photography.
And in an interesting technological confluence, the way in which viewers can scroll through virtual slideshows on this blog is not unlike how the Museum’s audience would have encountered many of these pictures in 1974…I confess, though, I’ll always prefer to linger over a finished print, and I hope that anyone reading this who has the opportunity to do so, will.
If you’re interested in learning more about Helen Levitt, who passed away last year at the age of 95, or would like to see more of Levitt’s work before May 7, the New York Public Library has some on view until May 23.
Helen Levitt’s color work was first shown at MoMA on March 14, 1963 as part of the one night slide program Three Photographers in Color. The program which included work by William Garnett, Helen Levitt, and Roman Vishniac was introduced by John Szarkowski.