Inspired by an exhibition of work by the pioneering street photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson the previous year, in 1936 Levitt bought a used Leica and began to take photographs in New York. Her lifelong love of film, photography, dance, and literature informed how she portrayed the world. In this picture, three children pause on a building stoop. A boy and a girl, who is oddly dressed in long trousers, stand in balletic poses, the masks they wear rendering their faces alien. The third child—socks sagging at her ankles and the hem of her dress peeking out from beneath her overcoat—tries to secure her mask over her ears. One of her eyes is barely visible through the aperture, but nonetheless she stares directly at Levitt.
Levitt’s images from the late 1930s and early ’40s are central to the history of street photography. Observing public spaces as if they were stage sets, Levitt unobtrusively photographed personal dramas and mundane moments, often capturing surreal juxtapositions of people, places, and things. She was particularly fascinated by the imaginative play and athletic movements of children. Unlike the many Depression-era photographers who had an explicitly social documentary agenda, Levitt did not intend her work to be read as political commentary but aimed, rather, to capture the poetics of everyday life.
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)