People Watching

Helen Levitt/Film Documents LLC
New York City, circa 1940; photographs by Helen Levitt

The “street” in “street photography” does not refer to a location or a subject; it identifies an idiom. A street photographer walks into situations nobody controls in order to discover what can be made of them as pictures. She commits to contingency as a coauthor, as war photographers do, but her object is art, not news. A street photographer is a central, even if unseen, character in every scene she records. Any human gesture in a street photograph—a swinging arm seen from this angle, a planted foot from that one—results from the posture and movements not of the subject alone but of two people, photographer and photographed.

The characteristic gestures in the street photographs of Helen Levitt marry grace with awkwardness—folded limbs, trailing skirts, feet acutely angled as someone turns around. The sidewalks in her world are dirty, the curbstones cracked, doors and walls pockmarked and chalk-marked. The vacant lots where kids go scampering are generations deep in shattered things.

Some of these features of Levitt’s work can be accounted for by her explanation—meant to repel any imputation of a do-gooder’s motives or, in her images of children, motherly tenderness—that she photographed in poor neighborhoods because that’s where life happened in the streets, and kids were simply the people she found out and about. But some of its features, too, must be declared matters of style. In an essay written in the 1940s for what would become Levitt’s first book, A Way of Seeing (1965), James Agee positioned her street pictures as “lyrical photographs” as opposed to “social or psychological document[s].” Levitt summarized the capacity that allowed her to make her pictures: “I can feel what people feel.”

A lifelong inner ear condition gave her what she called a “wobble”; she also had, as a jazz pianist or horn player might have, an affinity for irresolution, missteps, in-between shiftings of weight, the moment not at the apex of a jump but just after. Her pictures say: Things don’t line up. Bodies have minds of their own. People interact in a richer, more expressive way in life than they ever will on a stage; the hard and worthwhile part is catching them at it. In the 1930s Levitt sometimes outfitted her camera (as Ben Shahn and Walker Evans also did) with an angled prism that let her appear to be photographing 90 degrees off what her lens was taking in. This kept her subjects from reacting self-consciously to the camera, but it also must have gotten her at least half engaged in peripheral vision.

A photograph Levitt made around 1940 has the kind of elegant internal logic that invites protracted discussion and tempts bloggers and teachers of art history surveys to let it stand for her work as a whole. Nine children on a…

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