While when it comes to NYC street photography I tend to rave mostly about Bruce Davidson (I’ve blogged about Brooklyn Gang probably like sixteen times by now for real) and while the slick, stylish urban glitz of his work creates a romantic vision of this city which I can’t get enough of, Helen Levitt is among my favourites as well.
Along with Walker Evans and Henri Cartier-Bresson, Levitt’s widely considered part of a triumvirate of great street photographers of the early twentieth century. Her work though somehow seems more empathetic than either of theirs — almost always candid, frequently of the elderly or children, unpretentious and somehow restrained. Levitt was an unobtrusive photographer — even when Walker Evans snapped photos of subway riders from a camera hidden in his overcoat, he framed and edited them to look like formal portraits. In contrast, Levitt was one of those photographers who chooses the awkward images: the imperfect shots, mid-gesture, that look more like film stills than paintings, frames from a hidden surveillance camera rather than calculated representations.
As compared to Evans’ more polished, clean portraiture and Cartier-Bresson’s decidedly Parisian glamour, Levitt’s work is gritty, uncomfortable, and occasionally downright weird — somehow the most honest portrayal of New York of the three. Her photographs of city streets, which range from the 1920’s to the 1990’s, somehow still always seem familiar despite the distance in years, as if she’s captured something quintessentially New York that persists even today.
More after the jump, as usual.