Monday, March 30, 2009

Helen Levitt

Helen Levitt, who died Sunday, was my muse. She was the slightly underappreciated member of the great '40s generation of photographers; profiles always mention that she was "friends" with James Agee and Walker Evans, as if she couldn't stand alone. She always said, girlishly, that she was too shy and tech-phobic to be a photojournalist, although that's essentially what she was.

She roamed the poorer neighborhoods of New York and captured what I always think of as the theater of hanging out. She loved to photograph people on the stoop wearing exaggerated expressions—crying or laughing so hard they look like they're faking it. Often "props" appear in her photos—a cardboard cutout of the president or a strange figure drawn on the street in chalk. Her many photos of children had none of the poster cuteness of Henri Cartier-Bresson's—something I imagine she tried hard to avoid because she was a woman.

One thing she did better than any of the male masters is transition to color photography. Her contemporaries seemed scared off by bursts of street color they couldn't control but she just got better and better. In every photo in her book, Slide Show, it's hard to believe she didn't place that red balloon or those aqua shorts just so, but of course she never did. Unlike the men, she was happy to submit to the randomness.

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