Almost 20 years ago I had chance to interview Helen Levitt on my WBAI radio program. Since the show was on Thursday afternoon, Helen explained to me, she couldn't come into the studio and could only give me ten minutes on the telephone, lest I interfere with her weekly poker game.
The diffidence and control of Levitt, who died over the weekend at 95, was the key to her charmed photographic life. She not only didn't want anything too much, she barely required anything at all. Hence, Levitt and her work were favorites of the great Museum of Modern Art photo curators Newhall, Steichen and Szarkowski. Her production of the most influential photo book of the last century, A Way of Seeing, a collaboration with the critic James Agee, took 15 years and wasn't published until after Agee's death. While disdaining technics, Levitt's imaginative cropping of her New York street pictures influenced Gary Winogrand and many other New York snappers to follow. Her pioneering transfer to color was overshadowed by Szarkowski's claims for the hues of William Eggleston. And, of course, her mystification of children has spread into a kind of degenerating objectification of prepubescence in the work of too many young snappers today.
In her seminal book, New York School, Jane Livingston tells of Levitt's thwarted efforts to make a buck in the fashion realm. She approached Conde Nast czar Alexander Lieberman about doing a series of street scenes for Vogue. Lieberman proposed that Levitt photograph some high fashion models in the ghetto, which was way to too vulgar for Levitt's flinty integrity.
Helen made some crucial sociological points which remain with us today. The racial identities of her child subjects flowed freely among each other, for example. The dancelike spontaneity of these kids argues against the stifling world of playdates and piano lessons that dominates the American postbourgeois. Levitt was very much the enemy of innocence: knowingness emanates from her viewfinder and spread through the intentions of her subjects, who seem bent on an exploration of the mischief to come after the camera and its holder are gone.
It is this psychological continuity which brings us back to her work, again and again, and gives one the courage to declare, "I am a child."
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).