Exploring the uncanny elements inherent to everyday life by capturing the fleeting moments of spontaneity and intimacy on the streets of New York, the American photographer, Helen Levitt, is celebrated as one of the most important street photographers of the 20th century.
The most celebrated and least known photographer of her time, Levitt was born on August 31, 1913, in Brooklyn’s Bensonhurst neighborhood in a Russian-Jewish immigrant family. She dropped out of high school, and worked for J. Florian Mitchell, a portrait photographer. But commercial photography didn’t interest her and she turned to street photography to capture the mystery and drama of ordinary life.
In 1935, Levitt met and befriended Henri Cartier-Bresson. Inspired by him and his work, she bought a small 35mm Leica in 1936 and started to take early street photographs. In 1937, she visited Walker Evans, and started to grow a friendship with him, James Agee and their friend, the art critic Janice Loeb.
Levitt received her first grant in 1946 from the Museum of Modern Art. In 1959 and 1960, she received two subsequent Guggenheim Fellowships and started to work in color. 40 of her color street photos were shown as a slide show at the New York Museum of Modern Art in 1974, it was for the first-time photographs were formally displayed this way in a museum.
Retrospectives of Levitt's works have been held at several museums including San Francisco Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, International Center for Photography and the Centre National la Photographie in Paris. She was also an Academy Award-nominated documentary filmmaker.
The main books she published during her lifetime include: “A Way of Seeing” (1965), “In the Street: Chalk Drawings and Messages, New York City, 1938-1948” (1987), “Crosstown” (2001), “Here and There” (2004), “Slide Show” (2005), and “Helen Levitt” (2008).
Known as New York’s “visual poet laureate”, Levitt was very introvert and lived a quiet life. At 95, she died in her sleep on March 29, 2009.