So I’ve been thinking a lot about the streets of New York City, and Philadelphia, and Toronto, and Seattle, and the differences between. I’ve spent a lot of time walking these city streets, getting blisters, walking up inclines, people watching, eating fruit and bread on my way from a museum to a comfy park bench, to Saturday-morning street markets. Since I’ve spent most of my life in cities that aren’t pedestrian-friendly (Dallas, TX, and Jackson, MS), I make a point of only going on vacation to cities with great mass transit systems, places where I can make do with my feet. If I ever move to Chicago or Philly or Manhattan or Paris, the first thing I’ll do is sell my car. I’m a hoofer, and I don’t care who knows it.
But I haven’t been seriously hoofing it since my October 2005 trip to Seattle. My thighs are getting flabby again. The belly’s wobbling. It’s Helen Levitt who is making my legs nostalgic.
Levitt’s been taking photographs of her beloved New York City since the 1940s, mostly in black-and-white. She’s not particularly interested in landscapes, grand vistas, picture postcards, towers, waterways, or gleaming skyscrapers. People and the world in which they walk and live fascinate Levitt. Celebrities, however, mean next to nothing to her—Levitt’s people are hot dog vendors, cab drivers reading the newspaper on break, single mothers smoking on their doorsteps, children ricocheting through the neighborhood after school, deli owners peering out at the sun.
Her shots are mostly unstaged, and the actions she captures are quotidian. No one performs in her shots; few people seem to notice that she’s there. It’s average, everyday street life that Levitt makes so mesmerizing. She’s a documentarian—she was one of the first photographers to make a career out of this style. She more or less started her career shooting children’s chalk drawings on the sidewalk, because she recognized them as ephemeral folk art. She shot miles and miles of film documenting the art, and devoted a book to the subject. Levitt, however, is not a politician. Photographer and curator John Szarkowski says that Levitt “worked in poor neighborhoods because there were people there, and a street life that was richly sociable and visually interesting.” That’s it, and nothing more.
But also nothing less. James Agee wrote this of Levitt:
At least a dozen of Helen Levitt’s photographs seem to me as beautiful, perceptive, satisfying, and enduring as any lyrical work that I know. In their general quality and coherence, moreover, the photographs as a whole body, as a book, seem to me to combine into a unified view of the world, an uninsistent but irrefutable manifesto of a way of seeing, and in a gently and wholly unpretentious way, a major poetic work.
And Agee didn’t even live long enough to see Levitt’s color photographs.
Those are what I’ve been looking at for a week now, as collected in Slide Show: The Color Photographs of Helen Levitt. In 1959 and 1960, she received Guggenheim grants to shoot New York in color. And so, as is her wont, she took to the streets. In 1970, a burglar took the majority of this slides—though a few survivors appear in Slide Show—and she had to start over. Undeterred, she shot enough, and well enough, to have a 40-photo slide show exhibited at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. It was one of the first exhibitions of serious color photography at a major museum. Slide Show includes more than 100 photos made from 1971 to the early 1990s, and most have never been published or exhibited before. Even if you’re a Levitt buff (and this is the first book I’ve seen by her), the book is a major work.
Slide Show, of course, doesn’t scream Major Work—even the title is nonchalant. Levitt’s photos look as if they were taken surreptitiously, on the fly. They’re slightly grainy, so that the foreground and the background often have the same degree of clarity. Often, the light is flat, off-white, fuzzy, so that the sky and buildings look like a not-quite blank canvas. That’s all to the good, because the skin tones, clothing colors, and car paint is all pushed to the front. The 1970s, the time in which most of these photos was taken, was a decade of, if nothing else, vibrant fashion and expression. Levitt’s camera captures the feel of the 1970s, as worn and walked by its denizens. She does so without condescension, so that even the most ridiculous afros, bell bottoms, and disco-dynamite gear looks natural here. Her shots are so casual that it takes a moment to register how carefully the compositions are made, that (despite the subtle graininess) you can read the lettering of the Coca-Cola can that a man sips in the background, that the color patterns of people and the walls behind them are juxtaposed beautifully. Levitt is documenting lives, sure, but don’t be fooled into thinking she’s slapdash.
Her photos glean things just barely seen from the corner of our lives—a glance down the street that contains a lifetime of sadness; the scared boy underneath his supercool pose; a scruffy dog grateful to get a brief rest from walking; a kid’s simple delight in watching the world go by. Levitt’s a comedian, too. Several of the photos are laugh-out-loud funny, either because of how the people are behaving within them, or because of the seemingly offhand juxtapositions Levitt makes with people’s actions and their immediate environments.
Slide Show is street life, both at play and at work—every shot in Slide Show is an outdoor one, and almost all are daytime photos—and, more importantly, it’s our lives. The decade may be the 1970s, but Levitt’s gaze is modern and timeless. The book will make you want to take to the streets.