Helen Levitt was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1913. In the early 1930s she began her lifelong exploration of photography and film. Henri Cartier-Bresson and Walker Evans were among the first artists to encourage and support her work and in 1938 she helped Evans make prints for his famous show American Photographs. As early as 1943 the Museum of Modern Art in New York mounted a solo exhibition of Levitt’s photographs. This early recognition shows an objective appreciation of her work in the male-dominated art world of her time. From the beginning she found her subject in the street scenes and people of her native city of New York, exploring it in the media of photography and film. Films like In the Street and The Quiet One document the time following the Great Depression and during the Second World War with unadorned realism. In 1948 The Quiet One was nominated for an Academy Award. Her films are also influenced by Luis Buñuel, who she worked for as a film editor for some time.
Helen Levitt’s photographic oeuvre is a testament of her great passion for the street photography of the 20th century. Her photographs – mostly small format gelatin silver prints – are considered unsentimental documents of the American streets. She knew “where luck was most likely to lie in the stream” (James Agee) and like Henri Cartier-Bresson she developed an unerring sense of the “decisive moment“. At the same time, Levitt’s images expose the American Dream as a perpetual myth, while she empathetically represents members of the working class in their individual dignity. The photographs of the professed socialist oscillate between documentation and poetry. They are grounded in everyday encounters with people, they reveal the aesthetics of the street and they are never an end unto themselves. Nothing is staged or arranged, the situations are intimate, sensitive, yet always captured from a distance. In the late 1950s Levitt was one of the first artists to work in colour photography and since the 1970s she made high quality dye transfer prints with colours of striking intensity. Around that time her works gradually gain a certain pathos and romance, but they are free of any voyeurism or sensationalism, remaining timeless in their portrayal of the ordinary. In 2009 Helen Levitt died in New York at the age of 95.