February 13, 2008

Helen Levitt's Photos Of Kids And Their Street Art


Lifelong New Yorker Helen Levitt is one of the masters of street photography, the kind of candid, revelatory imagemaking that, as a NYT reviewer once wrote, "combine[s] intuition and intellect to forge sophisticated, lyrical compositions from commonplace events." If Levitt's photos seem to have more children in them than her colleagues' Henri Cartier-Bresson and Walker Evans, it may be because in New York in the 1930's and 40's, that's where the action was:

There were plenty of kids playing on the street. The streets were crowded with all kinds of things going on, not just children. Everything was going on in the street in the summertime. They didn't have air-conditioning. Everybody was out on the stoops, sitting outside, on chairs.

Levitt also took incredible photos of kids' chalk drawings. In the Street: Chalk Drawings and Messages, New York City, 1938-1948 was only published in 1987, and the pre-TV-era works look as fresh as the surrounding cityscape looks alien and antique.

For a 2000 show called Chalk Drawing Murals, Levitt made large-scale, 30x40-in. prints of ten of her 160 chalk drawing photos. I'm always skeptical of classical modern photographers blowing up old work to keep up with market trends, but I would imagine they look fantastic. [The website for her gallery, Laurence Miller, has been down for a while.]


Though value in the photography market is a complicated tangle of print dates, editions, and condition, Levitt's photos seem pretty reasonably priced, at least in the grand art world scheme of things. There's an 11x17 print of one of her most dazzling images, New York, c1945 coming up for sale at Christie's next week with an estimate of $5-7,000. [Is the address on a sign in the background, 225 West 34th St, really where this photo was taken? Can you imagine a happy gang of urchins playing with a broken mirror across from Penn Station in 2008?]
Buy In the Street: Chalk Drawings and Messages, New York City, 1938-1948 at Amazon for $15-20 [amazon]
Sale: 1968, Lot: 231, Helen Levitt, Feb. 20th, NYC [christies]

update: Levitt's gallery site is back up. The large chalk drawing murals could be awesome, especially Plate 10, the train. [laurencemillergallery.com]

1 Comment

Helen Levitt died yesterday. Her photography was amazing! Thanks for your post about her.

Matt Bamberg,
Author, http://www.amazon.com/Quick-Secrets-Create-Winning-Photographs/dp/1598639021

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