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Thomas Dikant (München)

Helen Levitt: 10 Photographs

Helen Levitt: 10 Photographs
In 1943 Helen Levitt exhibited her photographs at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Instead of being the starting point for a brilliant career as a photographer, up until the 1990s only few other exhibitions followed this one. Limited to the close study of ten black and white photographs from around 1940, this essay examines some of the characteristic traits of Helen Levitt's early photographic art. Emphasizing her embeddedness in the art world, I will argue against treating Helen Levitt's photographic work as social photography. The aim of this essay is to inquire into the role three different art forms — painting, photography, and film — played for Helen Levitt's own photographic aesthetic. By presenting several case studies, I will try to both trace the influence of seminal figures like Walker Evans, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ben Shahn, or Jean Cocteau on Helen Levitt's work and further explain in what way her poetical photography is unique and singular.

1 Introduction

Even now, fifty years after the first of her three exhibitions at The Museum of Modern Art in New York; Levitt remains what is known as a "photographer's photographer." (Hambourg 1991: 45)

The 1990s saw an increasing interest in the work of Helen Levitt, a photographer who not only exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, worked alongside Walker Evans, and collaborated with James Agee, but was also an early champion of color photography.1 Still, she remains what Maria Morris Hambourg calls "a photographer's photographer" — someone who is more highly valued by her colleagues than by the public.

That neglect is grounded in a particular quality of Helen Levitt's photography: "the pictures offer nothing sensational, overtly stylish, or beautiful to the casual viewer" (Hambourg 1991: 45). Helen Levitt's art is not revealed at first sight, but one has to look at her photographs in order to appreciate them. Therefore, the aim of this essay lies in giving her pictures the detailed study they deserve.

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In order to allow a thorough study of Helen Levitt's photographs, I will limit myself to a specific part of her work: 10 black and white photographs from around 1940. Since I am treating Helen Levitt as an artist, as someone who was influenced by and communicated with other artists, the sociological information that can be found in her photographs will only play a minor role, if any at all. I will try to point out some of the general characteristics of Helen Levitt's photography. The question what terms could be, have been, or are being used in order to speak about her work will also be of concern. But what interests me the most is inquiring into the role that three different forms of art–painting, photography, and film–played for Helen Levitt. The role of each art will be investigated in the form of case studies. I hope that I can thereby provide some insights into Helen Levitt's art.

2 Helen Levitt's Photographs

The five boys in picture 1 are moving, climbing, looking, posing, playing in front of battered tenement houses, in a backyard where garbage litters the earth. There are no plants and there is no sky in Helen Levitt's photograph New York City, 1940, the paint on the crude brick structure building up front crumbles, one wall is smeared with graffiti and except for the five boys, there are no human beings in this picture, even though the white washing hanging on the clothesline in the back of the picture indicates that there is life behind the dark tenement windows. The light dress of the children – a T-shirt, a shirt, and short trousers – shows us that the photograph was taken in the summertime. Poverty is an undeniable fact in this picture, but the life spirits of the five kids are not weighed down by their poor surrounding. A black boy enjoys himself walking past the photographer, turning his head and smiling into the camera, another black boy clearly poses for the camera, holding a white hat to his heart, while the rest of the children seem unaware of being photographed. One turns his back upon us trying to climb a fire escape, two boys who look Hispanic watch something which is outside of the frame of the picture. Helen Levitt's five youngsters fill this otherwise dead backyard with life and transcend the poverty and dirt of their surrounding.

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New york City 1940

Picture 1
Helen Levitt New York City 1940
(Weiermair 1998: 36)

Click on Image for Enlargement

This photograph presents us with some of the characteristic features of Helen Levitt's work. According to the caption, the photograph was shot in New York. "Almost exclusively, Levitt has looked to the New York streets as the source of her art" (Phillips 1991: 15) writes the Curator of Photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Sandra S. Phillips, in her article "Helen Levitt's New York".

Considering this point, one can be even more precise, for it is known that Helen Levitt's favorite neighbourhoods for shooting her pictures had been New York's Spanish Harlem and the Lower East Side (Westerbeck/Meyerowitz 1994: 264-65). In this case, the presence of two Hispanic looking boys speaks for locating picture 1 in Spanish Harlem. Yet another characteristic trace of Helen Levitt's photographs is already mentioned by Sandra S. Phillips: the fact that the "New York street" is where Levitt is looking for her subjects.

The five boys are standing outside poor tenement buildings, not literally, but figuratively out on a street. Helen Levitt's friend, James Agee, who wrote the essay for her first book of photographs, A Way of Seeing, observed that "nearly all the people in her photographs are poor" (AWoS: xii), which is not surprising, because most of her photographs were shot in lower class neighborhoods like Spanish Harlem or the Lower East Side. But Helen Levitt is not interested in exposing poverty and pitiful living conditions. "One cares about her subjects because the photographer makes us feel that they are seen with a caring eye" (Kozloff 1987: 32) wrote the art critic Max Kozloff, justly stressing the quality of Helen Levitt's empathy with her subjects. Helen Levitt's "caring eye" enables us to see more than just the poverty that surrounds the five boys, she makes it possible for us not to pity her subjects, but to see their joy, their earnestness, their sense of being in the world.

It is not by chance that picture 1 focuses on children. Helen Levitt's first one person show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1943 was called Helen Levitt: Photographs of Children. She "most frequently finds children for her subjects" (Phillips 1993: 169). James Agee praises the high degree to which Helen Levitt excels in these photographs:

Readers who particularly like children will find here as much to meditate, and understand, or be mystified by, as anyone, so far as I know, has ever managed to make permanent about children. (AWoS: x)

One more photograph by Helen Levitt will help us to understand the special quality of her photographs of children.

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Picture 2 shows us a city street in the summer. A small black boy is sitting on a stoop right in the middle of an open door, a black girl is standing up front. Only a part of the pavement and parts of the groundfloor of a lower class building are visible. The posture of the boy is somewhat unusual, posed, he is sitting on his left leg, his right elbow propped against his knee, holding his head, a head that is seen in profile, his face is looking to the right. One can not tell for sure whether his eyes are open or closed. Up in the front of the picture, on the boy's right side, is a black girl, wearing a simple, short summer dress that looks very poor. She figures so large within the frame that we can't see her legs below her knees. Her back is turned to the boy, her arms are crossed in front of her, she is standing upright, in a posture of strength. Yet, the expression on her face is very intense, earnest, she is serious, maybe even hurt.

New York City 1940

Picture 2
Helen Levitt New York City 1940
(Weiermair 1998: 31)

Click on Image for Enlargement

James Agee was so touched by Levitt's portrait of the girl that he dedicated a lengthier passage of his essay to her:

But it seems to me that the superrational beauty, fear, and mystery, and the plain strength and sadness of the girl, and her particular moment and stance in our own and in universal existence, all powerfully interdepend upon and enhance one another, reverberating like mirrors locked face to face the illimitable energies set up in the paradox formed in the irrefutably actual as perceived by the poetic imagination. (AWoS: xi)

This girl's whole stance is laden with emotions, emotions that tightly grip the viewer and not only make us gaze at the girl's existence, they make us realize our own existence, "universal existence".

But this photograph owes its fascination to more than just the girl. Its mystery lies in the relation between the boy and the girl. A wide empty space is separating them, they not only do not face each other but both look into completely different directions. They are two lovers who after a fight no longer talk to each other yet both long for communication, each wishes that the other would break the silence. But their wish makes their mutual contempt even more complete, forgiving becomes even harder. Even though the 'lovers' look much too young and are more likely brother and sister, one can't help but imagine them as being lovers. Treating children like this is characteristic for Helen Levitt. Many of her photographs have a slight sexual undertone.

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Accordingly, Gretchen Garner, who made a comparison of Helen Levitt's and Gertrude Käsebier's treatment of children, included the aspect of child sexuality into her description of Levitt's children: "Grief, compassion, fear, terror, bravado, hatred, and even erotic intensity animate children engaged in the desperate acts of being human in a dangerous world" (Garner 1992: 87). There is no difference between the emotions and passions of grown ups and those of Helen Levitt's children. In picture 2 the boy and the girl are not shown in opposition to adults, they represent the absent adults.

Colin Westerbeck and Joel Meyerowitz view this special treatment of children in Levitt's photographs as the key to their success:

To be any good, the pictures have to transcend their subject. We never take novels about children seriously unless we can take them as allegories of an adult world. The same strictures apply to street photographs of children. (Westerbeck and Meyerowitz 1994: 264)

Helen Levitt's photographs succeed in being more than just pictures of children, they represent the adult world.

From the technical point of view, Helen Levitt made her pictures with a 35 mm Leica. Often, the camera was equipped with a 'Winkelsucher', a right-angle viewfinder. "This device allows a street photographer to sight along the camera body while standing sideways to his subject, who consequently fails to realize that he is the subject" (Westerbeck and Meyerowitz 1994: 259). The fact that one of the boys in picture 1 look straight into and another one even poses for the camera does not necessarily contradict the use of such a crude device, because not everyone could be fooled. Helen Levitt pointed out that "the children caught on" (Westerbeck and Meyerowitz 1994: 260). Maybe she shot picture 1 without using a Winkelsucher, for some of her photographs were produced without this crude device (Garner 1992: 89) With or without Winkelsucher, Helen shot almost all of her pictures outdoors, using natural light.

3 Definitions

The Photo League–the group of filmmakers and photographers, that first introduced Helen Levitt to an aesthetic different from pictorialism–was the only organization in the 1930s that not only knew the work of Lewis Hine, but also recognized his influence and held him in high esteem.

Lewis Hine, a regular visitor at the Film and Photo League, a social reformer of the Progressive Era best known for his photographs of immigrants at Ellis Island and of child labor developed the notion of 'Social Photography'. "Social photography: How the Camera May Help in the Social Uplift" was originally the title of a paper that was delivered by Lewis Hine at the National Conference of Charities and Corrections in 1909 (Westerbeck/Meyerowitz 1994: 247). In this programmatic piece of writing, he described the function of his child labor pictures as follows:

Perhaps you are weary of child labor pictures. Well, so are the rest of us, but we propose to make you and the whole country so sick and tired of the whole business that when the time for action comes, child labor pictures will be records of the past. (Hine 1980: 112)

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The child labor pictures work as a paradigmatic example for the function of social photography. The aim of social photography is not to produce art, but "to raise public awareness of social conditions among the working class" (Trachtenberg 1989: 171) with the objective of changing society. Accordingly, his photographic work was originally published in sociological journals and not shown in art galleries.

Helen Levitt's pictures were never intended to be published in sociological journals, she always produced works of art that were exhibited in art galleries. In addition to that, pictures 1 and 2 have shown us that her work does not record the social conditions of the working class because her subjects transcend their often desperate surroundings. Regarding Levitt's photographs, one can only use the term 'social photography' in the sense of a negation.

"None of the photographs is intended as a social or psychological document" (AWoS: vii) wrote James Agee in the year of 1946, recognizing that Helen Levitt's position differs from that of social photography. The writer James Agee was a connoisseur of photography who had collaborated with Walker Evans on the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. James Agee points out that even though Helen Levitt's pictures were not intended as social documents, they do contain sociological information:

There is in fact a great deal that can be seen here by the purely rational mind and eye, or by a person who is, in a purely rational way, interested in people, in relationships, in cities. (AWoS: x)

But a purely rational view of her work at least partly ignores what her photographs are really about, because "the photography cannot be fully enjoyed or adequately discussed on a purely naturalistic or rational basis" (AWoS: x).

Instead of looking at Helen Levitt's pictures–and photography in general–through the lenses of naturalism and rationalism, James Agee proposes to view photography at its best as "poetic in a very high degree" (AWoS: viii). Within the field of poetic photography, he differentiates between static photographs, records of beauty "that the undeveloped eye is too casual and wandering to recognize" (AWoS: viii), as it is the case with the photographs by Mathew Brady, Eugène Atget and Walker Evans, and photographs that are "so filled with movement, so fluid and so transient, as it is in much of the work of Henri Cartier—Bresson and of Miss Levitt, that the undeveloped eye is too slow and too generalized to foresee and to isolate the most illuminating moment" (AWoS: viii). Static photographs are characterized as being "the richest in meditativeness, in mentality, in attentiveness to the wonder of materials and of objects, and in complex multiplicity of attitudes of perception" whereas photographs of movement are characterized as being the "richest in emotions" (AWoS: viii).

But it is not the term 'photographs of movement' that James Agee chooses in order to characterize Helen Levitt's pictures. Some of the best photographs of movement can be called 'lyrical photographs' and he counts Levitt's pictures as being among these. For that reason James Agee uses the term 'lyrical photography' as a characterization of Levitt's pictures.

According to Webster's Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary, the adjective 'lyrical' comes from lyric, and one of its meanings is: expressing direct usually intense emotions. Thus, using the term 'lyrical' for describing highly emotional photographs only seems logical. However, James Agee is one of the first writers to use this term in conjunction with photography. In aesthetic discourse, the term 'lyrical' has been used before by Benedetto Croce to characterize true art. Benedetto Croce, an Italian philosopher, historian, and politician, who was born in 1866, held four lectures at the opening of the Rice Institute in Houston in the year 1912 that were later published under the title: Was ist die Kunst. Therein, Croce investigates the question of how one defines art and he does this by using the term 'lyrical'. It might well be that Benedetto Croce's text influenced the thinking of James Agee.

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For Croce, art is "Vision oder Intuition" (Croce 1987: 13), vision or intuition, but instead of clearly saying what this means, Croce chooses to encircle the term 'art' by a series of negations. Art is not a physical fact, because physical facts have no reality. Art has a reality. Art fills the life of the artist with joy, a thing that is very real. The question, whether art is a physical fact, also includes asking if art can be physically constructed, which is the case. But constructing art, counting the words of a poem or weighing a statue robs art of all its pleasure. Art is not useful, it produces neither desire (Lust) nor aversion (Unlust). "Ein künstlerisches Bild mag einen moralisch lobens- oder tadelnswerten Akt darstellen; aber das Bild als Bild ist moralisch weder lobens- noch tadelnswert" (Croce 1987: 19). Morality is a useless criteria for discussing works of art. Only the scene depicted can be moral or amoral, but not the picture itself. Art does not convey knowledge of truth, it is a useless question to ask if art is metaphysically right or wrong.

The perception of art as intuition always emphasizes its illogical character, and as something illogical, art resists the production of classes, types or genres. But the main problem in defining art lies in discerning a real picture from a false one. This can be done by defining intuition. Intuition is not the production of a incoherent mass of pictures, it is the production of a single picture. Croce speaks of the "Einheit in der Mannigfaltigkeit" (Croce 1987: 30), the unity in diversity. All the different elements of an image have to find their center and melt into a single, complex picture. Only in the case when the picture is filled with life and forms a unit out of the different images, is intuition true art. "Die Intuition ist eben Intuition, weil sie ein Gefühl darstellt, und nur durch und aus dem Gefühl kann sie entstehen" (Croce 1987: 36/37). Croce emphasizes the emotional nature of true intuition. Emotions are the unifying factor, they give intuition coherence and unity.

Epic and lyric or drama and lyric are always indivisible divisions of the indivisible, because art is always epic, lyric and drama. Croce writes that the artist's intuition is always lyrical intuition, but he uses 'lyrical' only as one of many possible synonyms for intuition. True intuition is emotional, false intuition is when play, calculation or practical thinking result in an amassment of images, wherein the unity is mechanistic. "Die wahre und eigentliche ist die Bildintention, deren Zusammenhang ein Organismus ist und deren Lebensprinzip eben dieser Organismus ist" (Croce 1987: 39). True intuition is always organic and not mechanical.

The following comment about photography by James Agee makes a similar point:

It would be mistaken to suppose that any of the best photography is come at by intellect; it is, like all art, essentially the result of an intuitive process, drawing on all that the artist is rather than on anything he thinks, far less theorizes about. (AWoS: viii)

The best photography, and art in general, is the product of intuition. Agee shares Croce's belief that art is based on intuition, he believes that photographs like Levitt's "cannot be fully enjoyed (...) on a purely naturalistic or rational basis", they are "purely aesthetic" (AWoS: x). Art is not a product of the intellect, but of the artist's life, art has to be filled with life. So far, Agee follows Croce's argument, but in his definition of lyrical photography, Agee departs from Croce's argumentation.

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Whereas Croce sees lyric, epic, and drama as inseparably constituting a whole, meaning art, Agee strictly differentiates between static and lyric photography. This violates Croce's belief that art negates the construction of categories. In addition, Agee considers emotionally rich lyrical photography to be the equal of the less emotional static work. Both are seen as examples of good art. According to Benedetto Croce, good art always has to be emotional. Although there are some similarities, Agee's use of the term lyrical differs from Croce's. It would be wrong to seek the origins of Agee's thinking singularly in philosophical discourse because he was certainly also aware of the photographic discourse of his time. This becomes evident when he writes about the technological aspect of photography.

Considering lyrical photography in general, Agee bemoans that compared to static photographs, only few lyrical photographs have been made, and those that do exist have found relatively little recognition. These deficiencies are at least partly caused by the newness of lyrical photography. "For a long time the camera was too slow, large, and conspicuous to work in the fleeting and half-secret world which is most abundant in lyrical qualities" (AWoS: ix). It is only with the invention of the miniature camera, a camera like the Leica used by Helen Levitt, that lyrical photography could find its true source.

James Agee is not alone in pointing out the importance of technological invention for the development of a new photographic style. The same argument is brought forward by Beaumont Newhall in his classic work History of Photography, first published in 1938, rewritten in 1949. In the chapter "Instant Vision" — it is this term that he uses to describe the new mode of photography that Agee called lyrical- Newhall writes that the miniature camera

opened up new esthetic possibilities. The ease with which the camera could be handled freed the photographer to seek unusual viewpoints and to record segments of the flow of life. (Newhall 1964: 156)

These "new esthetic possibilities" are used by Andre Kertesz, Brassai or Henri Cartier-Bresson and the like. Eugène Atget and Walker Evans, those photographers termed by James Agee as being 'static photographers' are now called 'documentary photographers'. "The documentary photographer seeks to do more than convey information through his photographs: his aim is to persuade and to convince" (Newhall 1964: 137). Such a statement places 'documentary photography' close to Lewis Hine's notion of 'social photography', sharing its objective of social change. Thus, it is not surprising that Lewis Hine is defined as being part of 'documentary photography'. "However revealing or beautiful a documentary photograph may be, it cannot stand upon its image alone" (Newhall 1964: 150). For Beaumont Newhall, documentary photographs have either to be arranged in sequences, accompanied by text or by a soundtrack.

Compared to 'instant vision' photography, that can stand for itself, 'documentary photography' seems deficient. In this, Newhall is closer to Croce than Agee, because the necessity of accompaniment makes documentary photography into an intellectual product. Helen Levitt's pictures, photographs that were only made possible by the invention of the miniature camera, photographs that capture life without aiming to persuade and to convince, are part of 'instant photography'.

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The newest term that has been in use to describe Helen Levitt's pictures by a wide variety of contemporary scholars is 'street photography'. A concise definition of the term 'street photography' can be found in Colin Westerbeck's and Joel Meyerowitz's book Bystander: a history of street photography:

For the most part, however, the photographers discussed in these pages have tried to work without being noticed by their subjects. They have taken people who are going about their business unaware of the photographer's presence. They have made candid pictures of everyday life in the street. That, at it's core, is what street photography is. (Westerbeck and Meyerowitz 1994: 34)

Labeled 'street photographer,' photographers as diverse as Eugène Atget, Lewis Hine, Walker Evans, André Kertesz, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Brassai and Helen Levitt are all discussed in Bystander. Ignoring Eugène Atget or Lewis Hine, even Helen Levitt does not fit into such a narrow definition of street photography as it is given by Westerbeck and Meyerowitz: some of her photographs are not only shot with the awareness of the subjects, they show Helen Levitt's subjects clearly posing for the camera. Colin Westerbeck and Joel Meyerowitz's definition of 'street photography' contradicts their choice of photographers. Still, 'street photography' is an important term for discussing Helen Levitt.

4 Photography and Painting

Helen Levitt's initialization into the field of photography happened under the guidance of J. Florian Mitchell, who as a member of the Pictorial Photographers of America must have been familiar with the writings of America's most famous pictorialist photographer: Alfred Stieglitz.

In his manifesto for pictorialism, the essay 'Pictorial Photography', Alfred Stieglitz declared that "the photographer of to-day enters practically nearly every field that the painter treads" (Stieglitz 1980: 122). As an artist, the photographer is the painter's equal. This entails certain requirements, that were named by Stieglitz, who, speaking of photographs that equaled paintings, said that: "In order to produce them their maker must be quite as familiar with the laws of composition as is the landscape or portrait painter; a fact not generally understood" (Stieglitz 1980: 122). The knowledge of the laws of composition can only be acquired by studying works of art.

Curiously, Helen Levitt was unaware of the importance of composition until she met Henri Cartier-Bresson in 1935. Only then did she start to study paintings: "To absorb some elements of composition, she frequented The Museum of Modern Art, The Metropolitan Museum, and the Fifty-seventh street galleries" (Hambourg 1991: 49).

Her friend Henri Cartier-Bresson, one of this century's most famous photo journalists and street photographers, initially himself wanted to become a painter. "To this end in 1928 he entered the atelier run by Lhôte, one of the foremost painting teachers of the day (...)" who taught him "the careful construction of a visual space" (Westerbeck and Meyerowitz 1994: 159). Henri Cartier-Bresson enjoyed the education of a painter and is as familiar with laws of composition as a painter.

In his 'Préface à Images à la Sauvette' 'L'instant decisif' Henri Cartier-Bresson stated his thoughts on photography. Although this text was written in 1952, his aesthetic convictions expressed therein are most probably similar to the convictions he had in 1935, because his formative training in art happened under the guidance of Lhôte. The first sentence is: "J' ai toujours eu une passion pour la peinture" (Cartier-Bresson 1986: 9). Beginning an essay on photography with proclaiming one's own passion for painting shows us the privileged role painting always had in Henri Cartier-Bresson's conception of photography.

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Just like Alfred Stieglitz, Henri Cartier-Bresson was acutely aware of the importance of composition:

Une photo se voit dans sa totalité, en une seule fois comme un tableau; la composition y est une coalition simultanée, la coordination organique d'éléments visuels. On ne compose pas gratuitement, il faut une nécessité et l'on ne peut séparer le fond de la forme. (Cartier-Bresson 1986: 15)

But at the same time, Henri Cartier-Bresson distanced himself from what Alfred Stieglitz celebrates: art photography:

Nous modifions les perspectives par un léger fléchissement des genoux, nous amenons des coincidences de ligne par un simple déplacement de la tête d'une fraction de milimètre, mais ceci ne peut être fait qu'avec la vitesse d'une reflexion et nous évite heureusement d'essayer de faire de 'l'Art'. (Cartier-Bresson 1986: 15)

The speed with which the photo journalist or street photographer has to work makes it necessary to compose the picture at the speed of a reflex. Summarizing the relation of photographer and composition, Henri Cartier-Bresson writes:

La composition doit être une de nos préoccupations constantes, mais au moment de photographier elle ne peut être qu'intuitive, car nous sommes aux prises avec des instants fugitifs où les rapports sont mouvants. (Cartier-Bresson 1986: 15)

The photographer has to be concerned with, has to think about and to study composition, but at the moment when the picture is being shot, composition has to happen intuitively, at the speed of a reflex.

Composing intuitively, at the speed of a reflex, is probably also the way Helen Levitt made most of her photographs. All the more is it astonishing to observe how some of her photographs resemble famous classical and contemporary paintings. An example for the similarity to a classical painting in the genre of portraiture is picture 3.

New York City ca. 1940

Picture 3
Helen Levitt New York City ca. 1940
(Weiermair 1998: 54)

Click on Image for Enlargement

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A young girl, wearing a long black dress, her hair partly covered by a colored haircloth, is standing in a doorway and delicately holding a white flower in her hands. She might be a Jewish immigrant girl just outside a door shortly before or after a visiting the synagogue. Darkness, both in color and mood, prevail in this picture. The expression on the girl's face — she is directly looking into the camera - is very intense. She is earnest, serious and grave. It is the expression of an old woman who has had to live through a lot, a woman who knows sorrow and grief, yet it is the face of a young girl with all of its insecurity. Next to the girl's face, placed in the middle of the picture and lightest in color is the white flower. Our little girl is holding this flower as something precious, valuable, she looks disturbed by being photographed, threatened of being robbed of this valuable thing.

Sandra S. Phillips sees this flower as a sign of nature: "Nature, when it rarely enters, is usually an abstraction: (...) the Easter lily clutched by the fierce little girl in the doorway" (Phillips 1991: 16). A lily represents more than just nature. As a flower, the lily stands for blooming, flourishing, becoming, the flowering of a young girl. At the same time, a flower is a classical symbol for women. The whiteness of the lily signifies purity, the purity and innocence of a child. Flower and girl thus have many common semantic denominators. The semantic commonness is emphasized by the composition, because the flower is set close to the girl's face. At the same time, the grim expression on the girl's face works against equating girl and flower. The fascination of this photograph lies in this complex relation of girl and flower.

The lyrical photograph of the girl with the lily bears in many ways an uncanny resemblance to a painting by the German renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer, his Selbstbildnis mit Stranddistel, 1493. This painting is considered to be "the earliest example of an autonomous self-portrait executed in paint" (Koerner 1993: 37).

Dürer, Selbstbildnis mit Stranddistel

Picture 4
Albrecht Dürer Selbstbildnis mit Stranddistel(1493)
(Deguer 1977: 25)

Click on Image for Enlargement

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In Dürer's painting: "the artist appears like any young, middle-class Nuremburg burgher, outfitted with attributes of a fiancé and placed within the common German pictorial type of the betrothal portrait" (Koerner 1993: 37). Dürer placed himself in front of a dark background, his head, partly covered by a hat, is shown in half-profile, the expression on his face is serious. All this, but especially the way Dürer is holding the 'Stranddistel' in his right hand is echoed by Helen Levitt's picture. Incidentally, Dürer is holding a thistle, a thorny, rough plant that can be associated with masculinity, whereas the girl is holding a white lily. Man and thistle work as an analogy. Both pictures differ in framing and background: Helen Levitt's framing is broader and Dürer's background is vague, almost abstract. But the existence of aforesaid similarities is undeniable.

These similarities neither speak for Helen Levitt constructing the picture consciously in order to resemble Dürer's self-portrait, nor do they it even imply Helen Levitt's knowledge of this particular painting, a knowledge that is wholly unnecessary. Albrecht Dürer's painting both drew from the German pictorial tradition, and, as the first painted autonomous self-portrait, itself initiated a pictorial tradition.2 Helen Levitt at least must have known one of these paintings.

Whereas the nature of Helen Levitt's relation to the painting by Albrecht Dürer is not known, the influence of Ben Shahn on Helen Levitt is widely acknowledged. Ben Shahn was a painter and photographer, a lithographer and artist who studied at New York University, the City College of New York and the National Academy of Design, a first generation Russian-Jewish immigrant 15 years Levitt's senior, who with Willem de Kooning represented the United States at the Venice Biennial in 1954. Ben Shahn had been a friend of Walker Evans since 1929 and moved within the same circle as Evans and Levitt did.

Even though Shahn and Levitt met only once or twice, Sandra S. Phillips highly values Shahn's influence on Helen: "Levitt was more responsive to Shahn's work than to Evans' (...)" (Phillips 1991: 35). By Shahn's work Sandra S. Phillips first of all means his photography, made mostly as a member of the staff of the Resettlement Administration and the Farm Security Administration, though she knew that he viewed his photographs only as being secondary, as "notes for his paintings" (Phillips 1991: 35). Thus, it seems appropriate to compare his primary work, more specifically, one of his paintings, with Helen Levitt's photographs.

Handball 1939 is part of the group of paintings where the composition is taken from one of his photographs.10 Ben Shahn himself described the style of this period: "My own painting then had turned from what is called "social realism" into a sort of personal realism. I found the qualities of people a constant pleasure" (Pohl 1993: 16). In his personal realist painting Handball, a group of male youngsters is playing handball, throwing a ball against a large white wall. The ball around which the game is ordered is not clearly visible, it melts with the white wall. The players are standing in an ordered way, four active players grouped in twos right in front of the wall, and two in the back who are either watching or waiting.

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Ben Shahn, Handball 1939

Picture 5
Ben Shahn Handball (1939)
(Pohl 1993: 65)

Click on Image for Enlargement

Compared to Shahn's orderly game, Helen Levitt's picture 6 spreads the feeling of pure, wild, anarchic play, James Agee even speaks of "fire-dance fury" (AWoS: xiv).

Helen Levitt, New York City ca. 1940

Picture 6
Helen Levitt New York City ca. 1940
(Weiermair 1998: 21)

Click on Image for Enlargement

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The Latino looking boys are caught in the middle of their movement, they run around joyously, smiling, chasing each other with wooden sticks, looking as if they were having the time of their lives. Notwithstanding the fact that Helen Levitt presents us with an interpretation of play entirely different from Ben Shahn's, both compositions are very much alike. The foreground of both pictures consist of trampled earth, a wall is in the back of the picture, there's a sky visible at one side of each picture. Ben Shahn's painting displays an interest in written signs: he painted advertisements and wrote 'Urals' on the back of a jacket. Helen Levitt's photograph also contains written signs: graffiti like 'HOME TEAM the RED'S' adorn her wall. Both artists have the same taste for an urban scenery, for the play of kids and youngsters, and for written signs, yet their perceptions of play do differ significantly. Therefore each picture displays the individuality of its artist.

5 Helen Levitt and Walker Evans

When Leslie Katz asked Walker Evans in an interview in 1971, whether he thought about composition, he answered:

I don't think very much about it consciously, but I'm very aware of it unconsciously, instinctively. Deliberately discard it every once in a while not to be artistic. Composition is a schoolteacher's word. Any artist composes. I prefer to compose originally, naturally rather than self-consciously. Form and composition both are terribly important. (Katz 1981: 363)

Walker Evans' admission of the importance of form and composition and his emphasis, that in his case, it happens unconsciously and instinctively, sounds somewhat like Henri Cartier-Bresson. In Henri Cartier-Bresson's conception of photography, the composition of a photograph happens when the photographer snaps the shutter. Like Alfred Stiegltz, Henri Cartier-Bresson didn't think much of cutting of parts of a photograph in the darkroom in order to improve a composition, a composition was either strong when shot or most probably not good at all (Cartier-Bresson 1986: 16). But not for Walker Evans, who by no means insisted on the finality of the composition on the negative. He claimed: "I would cut any number of inches off my frames in order to get a better picture" (Katz 1981: 363). Without this willingness, it would have been impossible to embark on a project like the subway portraits.

In the year 1938, often accompanied by Helen Levitt, Walker Evans went down to the New York underground, where he rode the subway and photographed people on the train with a 35 mm Contax camera hidden in his coat, shooting blindly, selecting the moment of exposure with the help of a hidden cable release (Rathbone 1995: 170–71). Photographing with this technique in the subway, without the knowledge of his subjects, had a special fascination:

In the subway Evans found easy prey. 'The guard is down and the mask is off', Walker Evans himself wrote of these portraits 'even more than when in lone bedrooms (where there are mirrors). People's faces are in naked repose down in the subway. (Rathbone 1993: 137)

The wide variety of prints made from the subway project, that lasted up until 1941, illustrates the diversity of his different cropping of the negatives (Keller 1993: 152). Although it is not clear whether Helen Levitt witnessed the printing of Evans's subway portraits, she was well acquainted with his cropping technique, since she assisted him in printing the pictures for his American Photographs exhibition, where Evans's already used his cropping technique.

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But Walker Evans did more than just introduce Helen Levitt to the cropping of photographs, a technique which she has been using since. It was probably also Walker Evans who introduced her to the angle viewfinder. Thus equipped, Helen primarily photographed children "when the self is most self-forgetful and extroverted- when absorbed in play" (Hambourg 1991: 52). The play of children is a moment when, to use Walker Evans's previous quote, 'the guard is down and the mask is off'. Thus, Helen Levitt's aim in photographing children equals Walker Evans's aim photographing subway riders: they are both bent on capturing the moment when their subjects are unaware of the photographer's presence and their true human self shows.

Besides capturing this specific moment, Walker Evans' objective in pursuing his subway project was to produce impersonal records. It is Flaubert's method of the "objectivity of treatment, the non-appearance of the author, the non-subjectivity" (Katz 1981: 360) that functioned not only as a model for Evans's impersonal subway portraits, but was the motto for his basic approach towards photography.

With the criteria for lyrical photography being emotional richness, Helen Levitt's photographs do not qualify as objective, authorless pictures. But James Agee did not classify all of Helen Levitt's work as lyrical photography, he exempted some of her photographs from this category and called them recordings instead, to be more precise, "records of street and sidewalk drawings" (AWoS: vii). These photographs of drawings are the only pictures in Helen Levitt's oeuvre with no living human beings in them. Picture 7 is a fine example of such a recording: it is the chalk drawing of two cowboys facing each other, one aiming a pistol from his hip at the other.

Helen Levitt New York City 1940

Picture 7
Helen Levitt New York City 1940
(Weiermair 1998: 18)

Click on Image for Enlargement

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Part of the fascination of these drawings lies in their originality and their primitiveness, a fascination that was shared by many of Helen's contemporaries. One of them was the Hungarian-French photographer Brassai, who already in 1933 photographed graffiti in Paris, and in the same year, his pictures were printed in the surrealist journal Minotaure. Whether Helen Levitt ever saw this journal is not known, but she most probably saw the 1937 Museum of Modern Art exhibition Photography: 1839-1937 in which some of Brassai's photos were represented.

Not only Brassai, but Helen Levitt's friends Walker Evans and James Agee were also fascinated by children's art. When she first visited Walker Evans in 1937 or 38, he was particularly interested in certain aspects of her work: "Looking quickly over her photographs, Evans commented on a few and showed a special interest in her pictures of graffiti and public signs" (Rathbone 1995: 156).

A huge part of Walker Evans's own photographs is engaged in studying signs, signs and architecture, signs and their dialectical relation to humans. His photograph, Storefront and Signs, Beaufort, South Carolina 1936 will serve us as a case study for investigating the nature of signs in his art.16 Photographed while Walker Evans was working for the Resettlement Administration, it shows us parts of a wooden building, a door, a porch, windows and several hand painted signs, advertising for an art school, fruits, vegetables, a stenographer, one sign even bears historic information, saying: 'General Lafayette spoke from this porch 1824'. The photograph is shot rather close up, direct and frontal. The way these different signs are mixed within one picture is almost like a collage. The literalness of all those signs, their written character display Walker Evans's — he's a man who went to Paris in order to become a writer - interest in language.

Wlaker Evans, Storefront and Signs, Beaufort, South Carolina, 1936

Picture 8
Walker Evans Storefront and Signs, Beaufort, South Carolina, 1936
(Evans 1978: 69)

Click on Image for Enlargement

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More than that, hand painted signs are, according to Diana Emery Hulick, "a well known American itinerant folk art" (Hulick 1993: 144). American folk art was for the first time documented and collected in the 1930s, and even the Museum of Modern Art had a folk art exhibition running in 1938. Diana Emery Hulick ascribed a wide variety of characteristics to 'folk art': folk art should have a direct appeal, it is a form of a direct encounter with the world, and it is not realistic, it is conventional. Folk art always emphasizes the most characteristic forms of what it depicts.3

The chalk drawing in Helen Levitt's photograph has a direct appeal, and it presents us with the fresh and original viewpoint of children. It is not realistic, but it emphasizes the most characteristic traits of the thing depicted: the cowboys wear hats and cowboy boots with spores, and one points a pistol at the other. This drawing fits in neatly into what Diana Emery Hulick defined as folk art. But Helen Levitt did more than just photograph this form of folk art. In certain aspects, her photography can be placed in the proximity of folk art, as done by James Agee:

Most of these photographs are about as near the pure spontaneity of true folk art as the artist, aware of himself as such, can come; and an absolute minimum of intellection, of technical finesse or of any kind of direction or interference on the part of the artist as artist stands between the substance and the emotion and their communication. (AWoS: x)

Diana Emery Hulick draws an even stronger analogy for Walker Evans, this time referring to the cultural background of the 30s: "Since Evans matured in the 1930s, it is not surprising that his work bears an overall structural resemblance to American folk art" (Hulick 1993: 140). Walker Evans work resembles folk art for several reasons: he photographs common objects, like the painted signs, his pictures are often spare, yet, like folk paintings or quilts, they are regularly spaced and capture the characteristic elements of the thing represented (Hulick 1993: 140).

Helen Levitt's picture 9 illustrates why it is important to emphasize that Helen Levitt's photographs are only close to, but not identical with folk art.19 If one only briefly glances at this picture, one sees three girls leaning on handrail, posing, and a middle aged man, looking away. But a closer look reveals that this are actually three boys, dressed up in their mother's or sister's clothing. Underneath their female dresses, long trousers and shirts indicate that their disguise is rather half-hearted. Their male hair cuts are barely concealed under bandanas and hats. Two of them laugh in a rather boyish way. The man with the cigarette is not fooled by their disguise, he pays no attention to them. This might be one of Helen Levitt's Halloween pictures, but we do not know this, the title only says (as with so many of Levitt's images): New York City, around 1940.

New York City ca. 1940

Picture 9
Helen Levitt New York City ca. 1940
(Weiermair 1998: 63)

Click on Image for Enlargement

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How different is Walker Evans's photograph Sons of the American Legion, that was part of the American Photographs exhibition. Like Helen Levitt's picture it is centered on three boys, who are also dressed up: they wear white shirts, black ties and caps, the uniform of the Sons of the American Legion. They look slightly younger than Helen Levitt's boys. The sons are standing in a line, since one can see the arms of their left and right neighbors. The background is that of a city street, populated by a few pedestrians and two cars. Helen Levitt's picture was also taken on a city street, but in her picture, only small part of the pavement is visible. One of the Sons is more interested in something that is happening on the street than in being photographed. Another boy sinisterly stares into the camera, playing with his tongue in his mouth, which makes him look rather grotesque. Only the third boy seems to be rather relaxed and comfortable with being photographed.

Walker Evans, Sons of the American Legion (1938)

Picture 10
Walker Evans Sons of the American Legion (1938)
(Evans 1938: 32)

Click on Image for Enlargement

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Compared to Levitt's boys, who openly enjoy being dressed as girls, there is no play and no fun in this picture.4 Intense and unsettling, Walker Evans's vision is much darker than Levitt's. Thus Lincoln Kirstein, art critic and friend of Walker Evans, in his 1938 essay 'Photographs of America: Walker Evans' that was part of the American Photographs catalogue, described Evans's attitude with adjectives like "meager, stripped cold, naked, and, on occasion, humorous" (Evans 1938: 197). He generally described Walker Evans's work like this:

The most characteristic single feature of Evans' work is its purity, or even its puritanism. It is "straight" photography not only in technique but in the rigorous directness of ist way of looking. All through pictures in this book you will search in vain for an angle-shot. Every object is regarded head-on with the unsparing frankness of a Russian ikon or Flemish portrait. (Evans 1938: 197)

Sons of the American Legion is such a frontal, frank, and direct picture. The boys are dressed like grown-up men and they pretend to be grown-up man. If it were not for the child's anxieties in his eyes, the boy on the left would really succeed in presenting the cool expression of an American soldier. The other two boys fail in behaving like adults. They remain children, and Walker Evans depicts them that way.

Up to this point, all of Helen Levitt's pictures in my paper, including the three boys in drag, have almost the same titles: New York City, around 1940 or New York City, 1940. Helen Levitt has a strict system for naming her pictures: she uses the geographic place, meaning the city, and the date, meaning the year. Except for one visit to Mexico City in 1941, Helen Levitt took no photographs outside of New York City, and the years around 1940 were probably the time when Helen took her best and most widely known pictures.

Walker Evans had different ways of naming his photographs: only his subway portraits always have the same title: Subway Portrait, 1937-41. Except for that, he had no set system, some photographs were named according to their subjects, like Sons of the American Legion, others, like Storefront and Signs, Beaufort, South Carolina 1936 according to the subject the geographic place and the date, and others again, like Child in Back Yard 1932 according to the subject and geographic place. In any case, Walker Evans was always more precise in his use of captions than Helen Levitt. Arguing that he did this because he worked as a 'documentary photographer' for the Resettlement Administration would be wrong. He already had his way with his captions long before working as a 'documentary photographer'. Being interested in language and having once striven to be a writer, Walker Evans might not have been able to resist the lure of language.

Anyhow, the effect is that Helen Levitt's titles leave more space to the open play of the viewer's imagination. The viewer has to look at her pictures more intensely to find out what they are about, whereas Walker Evans's titles tell us more or less precisely what we see, even though there is always the option and often the necessity of not believing. Walker Evans was aware of the limiting effect of the captions. In the book American Photographs, he had complete artistic control and decided to present his photographs without any captions at all (Mora 1989: 126). In her first book, A Way of Seeing, that was finished in 1946 but not published until 1965, Helen Levitt also presented her photographs without any captions, but she did it without having full artistic control (Phillips 1993: 124).

In Walker Evans's book American Photographs the "photographs are arranged to be seen in sequence" (Evans 1938: 198). No single photograph is intended to stand for itself, instead, the viewer is meant to look through the book photograph after photograph, in the intended order. With this, Walker Evans treaded new ground, as Gilles Mora writes in his book Walker Evans:

Pour la première fois, un livre photographique prenait l'épaisseur réflexive, narrative, symbolique ou poétique d'un roman, avec ses épisodes, ses thèmes (...), sa progression dramatique, ses pauses, sa galerie de têtes et de décors, bref l'esprit et l'air d'une époque. (Mora 1989: 131)

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American photographs, like a novel, has a narrative sequence, the whole structure betrays Evans's love for literature. In this point, A Way of Seeing structurally differs from American Photographs, for Levitt presents "loose thematic clusters" (Kozloff 1987: 33) instead of a sequence with a dramatic progression, and that particular order had been suggested by James Agee's essay and not by Helen Levitt. The dramatic progression in Helen Levitt's work does not lie in the sequence of the pictures, it is located within each picture – as the following example reveals.

New York City ca. 1940

Picture 11
Helen Levitt New York City ca. 1940
(Weiermair 1998: 19)

Click on Image for Enlargement

Picture 11 by Helen Levitt looks like a film still from a gangster movies: three little gangsters are hiding away from a rivaling gang on the stairs of an entrance.24 They are ready to run, their toy guns are ready to shoot out, but they can not see the enemy yet. It is not hard to imagine the narration in which this photograph is embedded, it is a reenactment of a widely known scenario. The necessity of putting this photograph into a sequence becomes superfluous, all drama necessary is contained within this single street photograph. Instead of presenting us a neatly constructed sequence of photographs, the photograph itself is dramatic.

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6 Helen Levitt and Jean Cocteau's Le Sang d' un poète

The foreign films that Helen Levitt saw at the auditorium of the New School for Social Research and at the Cameo at 44th Street left a lasting impression on her mind. According to Susan Delson, of all those films that Helen Levitt watched, there were two which she admired the most: Jean Cocteau's Le Sang d'un poète (1930) and Aleksandr Dovzhenko's Aerograd (1935). Concerning the latter, a Russian film that was recommended to her by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Susan Delson wrote: "the film was an ineffable influence, not so much on Levitt's photography as on her sensibility" (Delson 1991: 77). As I am interested in comparing a film to Helen Levitt's photography and not to her sensibility, Aerograd does seem rather problematic. Thus, Jean Cocteau's film will be the subject of the following part of my discussion.

Le Sang d'un poète is the first film of the French poet, painter, and filmmaker Jean Cocteau, who is already 41 years old and an established writer when he shoots it. The making of Le Sang d'un poète was enabled by the sponsorship of the vicomtesse Marie-Laure and the vicomte Charles de Noailles, who also financed the surrealistic movie L'Âge d'or by Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali (Philippe 1989: 20–21). The initial idea for Le Sang d'un poète was described by Jean Cocteau as being the following:

Je proposai donc à Charles de Noailles de faire un film aussi libre qu'un dessin animé, en choisissant des visages et des lieux qui correspondissent à la liberté où se trouve un dessinateur inventant un monde qui lui est propre. (Philippe 1989: 21)

This film was supposed to be free from the laws and strictures that govern reality, a film that is as free as if it were drawn. The actual film was quite successful in achieving this.

After some opening images Le sang d'un poète presents the viewer with a lengthier text by Jean Cocteau that is frequently interrupted by images of a door being opened. In this text, he describes the film as "un documentaire realiste d'événements irréels". Further on in the text, he uses the term "bande d'allegories" to describe this film, and dedicates it to the memory of the early Italian renaissance painters Pisanello, Paolo Ucello, Pierro della Francesca, and Andrea del Castagno.

Le Sang d'un poète is structured into four episodes: "La main blessée, ou le cicatrice du poète. Deuxième épisode: Les murs ont-ils des oreilles? Troisième épisode: La bataille des boules de neige. Quatrième épisode: La profanation de l'hostie" (Philippe 1989: 27). These four episodes are framed by the image of a collapsing chimney, which indicates that they happen during the time it takes for a chimney to collapse - only seconds. The second episode will constitute the subject of the ensuing analysis.

"Les murs ont-ils des oreilles" begins when the protagonist, a poet, is instructed by a speaking female statue whom he has brought to life to walk through a mirror. After passing through this mirror and floating through a dark empty space, the poet arrives at a place called Hôtel des Folies Dramatiques. What we see now looks like a street scene. On the left side of the picture is a wall with several doors and a sidewalk is in front of it. Maybe this is not a sidewalk but a corridor inside the hotel, we do not know this, because the imagery presented is highly ambiguous. The poet's movements on this 'street' are unrealistic and ridiculous, he is moving along the wall as if he were sticking to it. Jean Cocteau explained the tricks he used in order to achieve this effect:

It is neither swimming nor flying. It's something else that isn't like anything else. Slow-motion is vulgar. So I nailed the sets onto the floor and filmed the scene from above. So the poet drags himself along instead of walking, and when the scene is put right again, you see a man walking very strangely with great effort, and the movements of his muscles do not correspond to the effort of his walk. (Ver Eecke 1997: 66/67)

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The poet moves from door to door and peeps through the keyhole of each door. Jean Cocteau couldn't possibly have used a more poignant imagery to express the poet's voyeurism. Since many of Helen Levitt's pictures were taken with a Winkelsucher that left her subjects without the knowledge of being photographed, one could ask whether her photography is voyeuristic. Most of her pictures were taken in open, public spaces; she did not intrude into closed spaces in order to photograph her subjects. Hence, the term voyeur seems too strong for being applied to a street photographer like Helen Levitt.

In the first room of the Hôtel des Folies Dramatiques, a Mexican revolutionary is being shot, dies, stands up, is shot again. In the second room, one sees the shadow of an opium pipe and smoke. The fourth room presents the rendezvous of a hermaphrodite. At the end of the wall, a female hand gives a revolver to the poet and a female voice instructs the poet how to use it. Following this instruction, the poet shoots himself, comes back to life and returns through the mirror to his room. The episode ends with the poet destroying the statue.

It is especially the imagery presented in the third room that visibly influenced Helen Levitt's photography. A sign at the door says: "Lecons de l'air". A small girl all dressed in white is sitting in front of a fireplace. An older woman dressed in black is holding a whip in her hand and looking down on the girl. The girl stands up, the woman sets her on top of the fireplace, then the girl is standing. The older woman beats the girl with her whip. Forced like this, the girl starts to fly above the fireplace, hanging in midair in a highly artificial and stylized pose, her angled arms extended above her head, her legs bent. She is floating in the air like an angel. In order to achieve the impression of flight, Jean Cocteau used the same trick as with the poet: he nailed the set on the floor and filmed the scene from above. The older women stares at the girl and makes signals with her right hand to move up. The girl floats up the wall, out of the frame of the picture. After another cut, the girl is now sticking to the ceiling. Her face comes in a close-up, she shows us her tongue and makes faces. The last image in this scene is of the girl up on the ceiling, rolling around, her arms extended, her face distorted, as if in anguish. With its poetic, violent and dreamlike imagery, the "Lecons de l'air" is certainly one of the most intriguing and memorable scenes in Le Sang d'un poète.

This is not the first time that Jean Cocteau used the image of a flying child. As Marjorie Keller observed, a description of a similar scene can be found in his 1929 book Opium. It reads as follows:

The boy at the Hôtel de la Poste in Montagris... knew how to fly, without the slightest play on words and without the slightest equipment.
The proprietor's wife. "Anselme, fly a bit to show Monsieur Cocteau."
I am noting word for word the transparent absurdities of morning drowsiness. (Keller 1986: 48)

The older women clearly has her origins in the proprietor's wife, the flying child is a girl and not a boy, and the Hôtel de la Poste is turned into the Hôtel des Folies Dramatiques. The major difference lies in the lack of force in Opium, for "Anselme, fly a bit to show Monsieur Cocteau." is a kind request. In Le Sang d'un poète, the woman uses a whip to make the girl fly. Hence, Jean Cocteau transformed a literary scene into a different and yet similar cinematic image.

First, let us compare one of Helen Levitt's photographs to the image that precedes the girl's flight: the girl is fearfully standing on top of the fireplace, threatened by the woman with the whip. Picture 12, New York City, 1939, features five boys who are climbing on a portal.26 Three boys are on top of the portal, one boy is climbing up, he has almost made it to the top. Another boy is standing on the base of the right pillar, almost on the ground. He is directly looking into the camera. These boys are engaged in play, they are climbing, fighting, and having fun at this unusual location.

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New York City 1939

Picture 12
Helen Levitt New York City 1939
(Weiermair 1998: 25)

Click on Image for Enlargement

The composition of New York City, 1939 is quite similar to Jean Cocteau's image of the girl on top of the fireplace. The way Helen Levitt arranged her picture around the portal makes it fulfill the same function as the fireplace. Both are rectangular structures in font of a wall and are placed in the middle of each picture. Neither fireplace nor portal are intended for standing on top of them, but both are used that way. The fighting boy who wears a hat is standing in the middle of the structure supported by the pillars. In Le sang d'un poète, the girl is standing exactly on the same spot, this time on top of the fireplace. Whereas the compositions in both images is similar, the mood is quite different. Nothing in Helen Levitt's picture suggests that the boys were forced to climb. They all look rather comfortable in what they are doing. The boy climbing up the pillar is one of the figures that refers to Cocteau's image of childhood flight.

In Helen Levitt's picture 13, the reference to Cocteau's flight imagery is more obvious. Helen Levitt's photograph shows us two children, two persons, like Le Sang d'un poète. One child is on the ground, the other is up on the tree, several meters above the ground, clinging to the tree and bravely defying the law of gravity. There are no branches below. Only one branch slightly above the child's head enables it to hold itself with its left hand. The faces of the children are hidden by a mask and a handkerchief, robbing them of their individual traits and making them anonymous. Especially the mask of the child on the tree is reminiscent of the allegorical figure that is repeatedly shown in Le Sang d'un poète. Both children look like mythical figures. On the whole, the imagery seems archaic, dark, and dreamlike. Contrary to Le sang d'un poète, it does not seem as if one child forced the other to climb the tree, as if one fled from the other. These children rather look as if being in a relationship of complicity. The child on the ground seems to be guarding the tree, or the child in the tree.

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New York City ca. 1940

Picture 13
Helen Levitt New York City ca. 1940
(Weiermair 1998: 22)

Click on Image for Enlargement

Susan Delson wrote about Jean Cocteau's image of the flying girl:

The image stayed with Levitt, surfacing years later in a boy shinning up a doorjamb of an abandoned apartment. In both moving film and still photograph there is a sense of a painstaking and arduous overcoming of gravity, and of ambiguous reward. (1991: 77)

The boy in picture 14 by Helen Levitt wears a strange hat made out of cardboard, his eyes are closed. It is not easy to discern whether the boy is still climbing up the doorjamb or hanging there, afraid to climb down, afraid of falling. As Susan Delson observed it, the reward for having is really ambiguous, in no way does the boy seem happy. When we take a look at Le Sang d'un poète, the limbs of the girl are extended while she is floating above the fireplace. No one who's in bodily danger would pose that way. The whip can't reach her any longer, she is safe. The boy is slightly cowering, either because of the strain from climbing or because of fear. Maybe there is someone outside the picture who can still reach the boy, we do not know. We can not tell if there is anyone or anything who forced the boy to climb, because he is the only one within the frame of this picture.

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New York City ca. 1940

Picture 14
Helen Levitt New York City ca. 1940
(Weiermair 1998: 24)

Click on Image for Enlargement

This is clearly one of Helen Levitt's most enigmatic photographs, radically depriving us of any context that would account for the boy's actions. Opposed to this kind of indeterminacy, Jean Cocteau uses a clear symbolism. The pure innocent girl dressed in white floats in the air like an angel. The bad woman dressed in black menaces, tortures and forces the girl against her will to fly.

The lack of any visible force in Helen Levitt's photographs makes them seem closer to Opium than to Le Sang d'un poète. But in Opium, the authoritative principle is still represented by the wife. In Helen Levitt's photographs, the actions of her children are not organized by an adult who is present in the picture. Her children seem to be completely free to act according to their own will.

At the beginning of his 'Manifeste du Surrealisme' from 1924, André Breton writes about men and childhood:

S'il garde quelque lucidité, il ne peut que se retourner alors vers son enfance qui, pour massacrée qu'elle ait été par le soin des dresseurs, ne lui en semble pas moins pleine de charmes. Là, l'absence de toute rigueur connue lui laisse la perspective de plusieurs vies menées à la fois; il s'enracine dans cette illusion; il ne veut plus connaître que la facilité momentanée, extrême, de toute choses. (Breton 1988: 311)

The return to childhood with its freedom and wide range of possibilities is presented as an irresistible possibility. Both in Jean Cocteau's Le Sang d'un poète and in Helen Levitt's photographs children play an important role. Jean Cocteau gives us images of a "dresseur" trying to tame a child and Helen Levitt shows us the wild and uncontrolled play of children. But both artists have more in common with André Breton than just their fascination with childhood. The images of Helen Levitt and Jean Cocteau seem very unreal, like images out of a dream. Surrealism comes to ones mind for describing the work presented in this chapter.

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In the case of Jean Cocteau, the fact that his film was sponsored by the same persons that enabled the making of L'Âge d'or seems to support such a classification. But Jean Cocteau distanced himself from the surrealistic movement. He did this for two reasons: for once he claimed that "he did not search for 'deliberate manifestations of the unconscious'" (Ver Eecke 1997: 57). The other reason is that he did not believe in the surrealist's revolutionary objective of changing society (Philippe 1989: 21).

Unlike Jean Cocteau, Helen Levitt was herself using the term surrealism for describing photography. One of her few statements on photography is: "The poetry of photography is surreal" (Garner 1992: 87). Helen Levitt was someone who has been well aware of the surrealistic movement. Her friend Janice Loeb helped to organize the exhibition "Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism" at The Museum of Modern Art, and Helen most probably saw this exhibition. After returning from Mexico, Helen Levitt met André Breton and Luis Bunuel, for whom she would edit propaganda films. All this clearly argues in favor of Helen Levitt's own surrealism. Yet, one has to be cautious in using this term in connection with Helen Levitt.There is a difference between calling the poetry of photography surreal and being a surrealist photographer. Man Ray, who was the most prominent photographer of the surrealist movement, made pictures that were highly artificial. Surrealism was achieved by consciously constructing images that represent the unconscious. Helen Levitt's pictures are no conscious constructions aimed at representing the unconscious, they are pictures taken in the spirit of the decisive moment. Therefore does it seem important to differentiate between Helen Levitt's 'surreal' photography and the photography of the surrealist movement. James Agee successfully characterized that difference:

Yet it is worth noticing that in much of her feeling for streets, strange details, and spaces, her vocabulary is often suggestive of and sometimes identical with that of the surrealists. (...). But I think that in Miss Levitt's photographs the general feeling is rather that the surrealism is that of the ordinary metropolitan soil which breeds these remarkable juxtapositions and moments, and that what we call "fantasy" is, instead, reality in its unmasked vigor and grace. (AWoS: xii)

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7 Conclusion

Helen Levitt is a photographer who took most of her pictures outdoors, on the streets of New York City. Even though they were often shot in poor neighborhoods, like Spanish Harlem or the Lower Eastside, she never depicted the pitiable living conditions of the poor but always photographed her subjects in a dignified way. Children are her favorite subject and her unique ability lies in treating them just like adults.

Considering the question of classification, her photographs could be described as lyrical photography, as instant photography, or as street photography. I would suggest that lyrical photography is the term that is most successful in characterizing her highly emotional and poetic work. Only after meeting Henri Cartier-Bresson did Helen Levitt recognize the importance of painting. The resemblance of one of her photographs to a painting by Albrecht Dürer can be taken as an evidence for her knowledge of the classical pictorial traditions in art history. Yet, I would argue that composition was for Helen Levitt still an intuitive process, as it is described in Henri Cartier-Bresson's "L' instance decisif". The similarity of one of her photographs to a painting by Ben Shahn shows us in which way Helen Levitt's individual vision resembles and yet differs from that of a contemporary painter.

Walker Evans was a major influence on Helen Levitt, introducing her both to the angle viewfinder and the cropping technique. Both artists share an interest in graffiti and folk art. Both produce photographs that are, each for its own reasons, close to folk art. But Helen Levitt was always more than just a disciple of Walker Evans. Her photographs are never cold and meager like those by Walker Evans, she is always more emphatic. Her captions leave more space for the free play of the viewer's imagination than those used by Walker Evans. In his book American Photographs, Walker Evans carefully created a narrative sequence. Helen Levitt only used loose thematic clusters in her first book A Way of Seeing.

Film was also an important influence on her visual style, as comparing three of her photographs to one episode from Jean Cocteau's Le Sang d'un poète has shown. Just like in the case of painting and photography, Helen Levitt does not simply reproduce images from the film. She uses some of the elements from the film and turns them into photographic images that are distinctly her own. Although Helen Levitt described the poetry of photography as being surreal one has to be aware of the fact that her surrealism is not that of the surrealistic movement. Her surrealism is that of the city street.

It is inevitable that a work that is based on the study of ten photographs is in many ways incomplete. Neither can these ten photographs in any way represent Helen Levitt's photography as a whole, nor could I always discuss these photographs at the depth they would have required. There is still a lot in them that remains to be explored. Yet, I do think that ten photographs are a sound basis for studying a wide variety of subjects. Especially the comparison of Helen Levitt's photographs to photography and other forms of art has proven to be fertile and provided us with insights into Helen Levitt's photographic art.

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Brassai (Gyula Halász) (1994): Vom Surrealismus zum Informel. Salzburg.

Breton, André (1988): "Manifeste du Surréalisme: 1924", in: Oeuvres complètes. Paris, 309-346.

Cartier-Bresson, Henri (1986): "L'instant décisif", in: Henri Cartier Bresson. Brax. 9-20.

Croce, Benedetto (1987): Was ist die Kunst? Berlin.

Deguer, André (1977): Albrecht Dürer. Bayreuth.

Delson, Susan (1991): "The Moviegoer", in: Artforum 30.4, 76-77.

Evans, Walker (1938): American Photographs: With an Essay by Lincoln Kirstein. Boston.

Evans, Walker (1978): First and Last. London.

Garner, Gretchen (1992): "Gertrude Käsebier and Helen Levitt", in: Art Journal 51.4, 83-89.

Hambourg, Maria Morris (1991): "Helen Levitt: A Life in Parts", in: Phillips, Sandra S. a. Maria Morris Hambourg (ed.). Helen Levitt. San Francisco, 45-63.

Hine, Lewis (1980): "Social Photography", in: Trachtenberg, Alan (ed.). Classic Essays on Photography. New Haven, 109-113.

Hulick, Diana Emery (1993): "Walker Evans and Folk Art", in: History of Photography 17.2, 139-146.

Katz, Leslie (1981): "An Interview with Walker Evans 1971", in: Vicki Goldberg (ed.). Photography in Print: Writinigs from 1816 to the Present. Albuquerque, 358-369.

Keller, Judith (1993): "Walker Evans and Many are Called", in: History of Photography 17.2, 152-165.

Keller, Marjorie (1986): The Untutored Eye: Childhood in the Films of Cocteau, Cornell, and Brakhage. London.

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Koerner, Joseph Leo (1993): The Moment of Self-Portraiture in German Renaissance Art. Chicago.

Kozloff, Max (1987): The Privileged Eye: Essays on Photography. Albuquerque.

Levitt, Helen (1989): A Way of Seeing: With an Essay by James Agee (AWoS). Durham.

Levitt, Helen (1997): Mecico City: With an Essay by James Oles. New York.

Mora, Gilles (1989): Walker Evans. Paris.

Newhall, Beaumont (1964): History of Photography: From 1839 to the Present. New York.

Philippe, Claude-Jean (1989): Jean Cocteau. Paris.

Phillips, Sandra S. (1993): "Helen Levitt's Cropping", in: History of Photography 17.1, 121-125.

Phillips, Sandra S. (1991): "Helen Levitt's New York", in: Phillips, Sandra S. and Maria Morris Hambourg (ed.). Helen Levitt. San Francisco. 15-43.

Pohl, Frances K (1993): Ben Shahn: with Ben Shahn's writings. San Francisco.

Rathbone, Belinda. (1993): "Walker Evans: The Rich Pastime of Window-Gazing", in: History of Photography 17.2, 135-138.

Rathbone, Belinda (1995): Walker Evans: A Biography. Boston.

Stieglitz, Alfred (1980): "Pictorial Photography", in: Trachtenberg, Alan (ed.). Classic Essays on Photography. New Haven, 115-123.

Trachtenberg, Alan (1989). Reading American Photographies: Images as History. Mathew Brady to Walker Evans. New York.

Ver Eecke, Wilfried (1997): "Jean Cocteau: Word and Image", in: Tsakiridou, Cornelia A. (ed.). Reviewing Orpheus: Essays on the Cinema and Art of Jean Cocteau. Lewisburg: 57-77.

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Weiermair, Peter (ed.) (1998): Helen Levitt. München.

Westerbeck, Colin and Joel Meyerowitz (1994): Bystander: a History of Street Photography. London.


1 Helen Levitt was born in 1913 as the child of Russian-Jewish middle class parents in Brooklyn, New York. After dropping out of high school Levitt started to work for J. Florian Mitchell, a portrait photographer, but commercial portrait photography proved to be of no real interest for her. Instead, The Film and Photo League caught her attention and provided her with a more sympathetic view on photography: that of photographing her subjects in their genuine surrounding. Through the agency of the Film and Photo League Helen Levitt met and befriended Henri Cartier-Bresson in 1935. Due to his influence, Levitt bought herself her first small handheld 35mm Leica camera in 1936 and started to take her early serious pictures. In 1937/8 Levitt visited Walker Evans, a photographer whom she admired since first seeing his pictures in Carlton Beals's book The Crime of Cuba. A friendship with Walker Evans, James Agee, and their friend, the art critic Janice Loeb, evolved. Only once in her life did Levitt leave New York for a longer trip outside the U.S.: in the year 1941 she and Alma Agee, James Agees's wive, visited Mexico City. Levitt found it problematic to adjust to the foreign surrounding, a difficulty that made a career in photojournalism impossible. Thus Levitt turned towards film, spending more than a decade with earning her money as a film cutter and assistant editor and with making two films. Receiving two subsequent Guggenheim Fellowships in the year 1959 and 1960 Levitt returned to photography, this time working in color. After another interval of black and white photography in the 80s, she is now photographing in both modes.

2 Another example of a self-portrait that could be compared to this photograph is Van Gogh's self-portrait made in Saint-Rémy in August 1889.

3 For a complete listing of the characteristics of folk art, see Hulick 1993: 140.

4 Levitt's boys might feel more comfortable because Helen Levitt might have used a Winkelsucher.