Curator, Eva Respini: Helen Levitt was born in Brooklyn in 1913 to Russian Jewish immigrants. And she is a self-taught photographer. She became intrigued by the chalk drawings that children would make on the streets and she decided to photograph them. And it really is from there that she grew as an artist.
The photographer Walker Evans introduced Levitt to the right angle viewfinder, which allows the photographer to shoot sideways so that the subject is unaware that the camera is on them but yet you see that Levitt physically was also quite close to them. That you really are in there, and in the action of the photograph itself, which makes them so wonderful and so physical and so vital.
Street photography, especially the tradition in New York, is certainly a rich one, But Helen Levitt's photographs in the 1970s, are unique for a number of reasons.
For instance there's a photograph from 1977 where we see an icy cart. We see several people in the phone booth behind them. And we see the kind of theater of every day life unfolding on the street. The way in which she was able to bring all these layers of activity and compress them in this one image, filling the entire photographic plane with rich detail, is something that she did incredibly well.
And there's definitely a sense of humor. There's this ability that she had to capture the most interesting characters on the street, and with the color film she was also able to capture the visual texture of the street of New York—this guy here with his pink shirt, and then behind we see somebody in the phone booth with a bright red shirt—they really jump out at you.