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.
I was immediately struck by the graphic, Hitchcock-esque images from Bottega Veneta’s current ad campaign — no surprise then, when I found out that the ad campaign was shot by Alex Prager, whose anachronistic, colourful, and almost grotesque film-still-esque style has made her one of my favourite contemporary photographers. (I’ve mentioned her before — is this too obvious, you guys? I have no idea how ‘obvious’ photographers are to the rest of the world that doesn’t, like, hang out and talk about photographers or whatever.)
Her images always (to me at least, but we all know I have a one-track mind) call attention to the cinematic/performative nature and artifice of female beauty and also the falsification of so many of the fashion and media images we encounter on a daily basis. The perfect poses and doll-like makeup are made even more eerie by the obviously-polyester wigs thrown slightly askew, the lurid but always exaggeratedly feminine clothes, overly theatrical lighting, and the impossible sharp angles of the camera. I think the main reason I dig her stuff so much is actually because I do tend to gravitate more towards journalistic/candid/unposed/lo-fi/snapshot type photography (remember that exhibit at the Tate I creamed my pants over for like three months straight?), but in Prager’s case the hyperconstructed sets and obviously elaborate planning are just as raw and revealing as the best of more gritty images precisely because of how unreal they are.
More after the jump, or check out a handful of her photos still up at the “Pictures by Women: A History of Modern Photography” exhibit currently up at the MoMA.