Helen Levitt dies at 95; New York street photographer of poignant dramas

Helen Levitt, who pioneered street photography in the United States in the 1930s, taking pictures of small, poignant dramas with the help of an inconspicuous Leica camera, died Sunday at her apartment in New York City. She was 95.

The cause was respiratory failure, according to Marvin Hoshino, a longtime friend.

Using East Harlem and the Lower East Side of New York City as frequent settings, Levitt caught the humor, frustration and delight of everyday life, particularly among the city’s poor. She was quick to recognize an extraordinary scene and quick to react.


“Helen was one of the first American photographers to identify street photography as potentially an art form,” said Sandra Phillips, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art senior curator of photography. “She wasn’t a photojournalist, she was more like a poet.”

Levitt bought a used Leica in 1936 and took to the city streets, making children her most frequent subjects. Her images of young girls following soap bubbles down a street, boys waltzing on the sidewalk and laughing at themselves, children playing on the narrow ledge above a doorway like a Grecian frieze come to life, capture the sense of discovery that is part of childhood.

“There is a sweetness to Levitt’s work, but the subjects are serious,” Arthur Ollman, the former director of the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego said in a 2004 interview with The Times. “She recognized real, formative moments in a child’s life. She saw the dignity of children, they were not strange ‘other’ beings to her.”

Her pictures of white chalk drawings are a historical record of the innocence of children at play. One of them shows a drawing of a bicycle that is so carefully detailed it suggests a wish to own such a marvelous thing. Another shows neat, concentric circles accompanied by a message: “Button to Secret Passage. Press.”

“People think I love children, but I don’t,” Levitt said in a 2001 interview with the New Yorker magazine. “Not more than the next person. It was just that children were out in the street.”

In the 1930s, she said, a lot of living went on in public places. “That was before television and air-conditioning,” Levitt told the Chicago Tribune in 2003. “People would be outside, and if you just waited long enough they forgot about you.” She set her lens focus and waited.

The results were like “fragments of a play whose first and last acts are elsewhere,” New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik said in the forward to Levitt’s book “Here and There” (2002).

From the start of her career Levitt moved among the greatest talents in her business. She became friends with Walker Evans and Henri Cartier-Bresson in the 1930s. Both of them helped her develop her style.

She learned by looking at the photographs of Cartier-Bresson, who lived in New York City in the mid-1930s. He took a photograph only when the timing was right -- “the decisive moment.” Levitt credited him with showing her how both luck and planning played a part in the sort of images she wanted to create.

Levitt also was briefly influenced by a trend among talented young photographers to work for the Farm Security Administration and other government agencies in the New Deal, taking pictures of poverty-stricken farmers and mountain people. But she was not a social reformer. “I never intend to make statements in my pictures,” she told the Chicago Tribune in 2003. “People say, ‘What does this or that mean?’ I don’t have a good answer for them. You see what you see.”

Speed was another feature of her work. “She was faster than anybody at taking a picture,” Ollman said of Levitt. That, and her way of capturing a scene as if it were a high point in a continuing drama, became hallmarks of her art.

From the mid-1930s, Levitt and Evans shared a darkroom and roamed the New York subways together. He showed her how to use a right-angle viewfinder to trick her subjects into thinking that she was not aiming at them. “Evans probably taught Levitt to avoid sentimentality,” Ollman said. “He loathed anything too overt, too obvious.”

Through Evans, Levitt met James Agee who wrote the text for “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” (1941), a book that featured Evans’ photos of Depression-era tenant farmers.

In an introductory essay to “A Way of Seeing,” a book Levitt and Agee produced in the 1940s and published in 1965, Agee said Levitt’s photographs amount to “an un-insistent but irrefutable manifesto of a way of seeing, and in a gentle and wholly unpretentious way, a major poetic work.”

Levitt also made a number of notable films. After venturing into filmmaking in the 1930s with Spanish director Luis Buñuel, she collaborated with Agee on “The Quiet One” (1948), a documentary about a young runaway who finds help in a school for troubled boys. She and Agee were among four writers on the film, which was nominated for Academy Awards in the best documentary film and best screenplay categories.

She and Agee also were the cinematographers for “In the Street” (1952), a short documentary about life in East Harlem in 1945 and ’46. An 18-minute film that plays out like Levitt’s still photographs come to life, it shows boys in a flour-bomb fight, a girl licking a window like a cat, children in Halloween costumes. According to Phillips, it is often included in film festivals as one of the best films by a photographer.

Levitt was born Aug. 31, 1913, in Brooklyn, N.Y., into a middle-class family. She had two brothers, Robert and William. She dropped out of high school just before graduation and found a job in a commercial photographer’s studio. As a young girl Levitt planned to be an artist but gave up the idea because she decided she had no talent for drawing.

From the time she bought her first Leica in her 20s, city life seemed to be all that she needed for subject matter. She rarely traveled for the sake of her work but did take one trip to Mexico, in 1941. More than five decades later, it resulted in a book, “Helen Levitt: Mexico City,” published by W.W. Norton in 1997.

She had her first major museum exhibition in 1943 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. A number of museum exhibitions followed over the next 60 years.

Despite her rising success, Levitt went through several periods when she took few photographs. From the mid-1940s until the late ‘50s she worked primarily as an editor on documentary films. When she went back to shooting photos in about 1959, she took some of her first color slides, supporting herself primarily with fellowships and grants. Many of those photos were stolen when her apartment was robbed in the 1960s.

Her scenes from the 1970s show a grittier New York City. During this time she also became interested in farm animals, photographing pigs and chickens that she followed around barnyards during short trips to New England and upstate New York.

She was in her 80s when she received the Master of Photography Award given by the International Center of Photography in New York City in 1997. The award was accompanied by a major exhibition of her work, “Crosstown.”

Four years later, a book of the same title was published by powerHouse Books. It was a terrible year for the city that Levitt had known in a gentler era. Asked if she had any thoughts about the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the plain-spoken photographer told a New Yorker magazine writer, “Nothing will move me from my city,” but “I think you should get the hell outta here.”

Levitt, who never married, is survived by her younger brother, William, the former longtime mayor of Alta, Utah.

Rourke is a former Times staff writer.