Helen Levitt / New York, c.1940
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Helen Levitt / New York, 1980

Helen Levitt is known as a “photographer’s photographer” a photographer who is admired by photographers everywhere, but not that well known. Since the raise of fame of Vivian Maier— I wanted to profile the work of Helen Levitt, and share the work of talented female street photographers.

Helen Levitt’s background

Helen Levitt / Estate of Helen Levitt/Laurence Miller Gallery, NY
Helen Levitt / Estate of Helen Levitt/Laurence Miller Gallery, NY

Helen Levitt was born in 1913 in a middle-class family of Russian-Jewish parents in Brooklyn, New York. She dropped out of high school, and worked for J. Florian Mitchell, a portrait photographer. Commercial photography didn’t interest her. Her true passion was photographing people in their natural environments– which she learned from the Film and Photo League.

In 1935, Levitt met and befriended Henri Cartier-Bresson. Inspired by him and his work, she bought a small 35mm Leica in 1936 and started to take her early street photographs.

In 1937, Levitt visited Walker Evans, and started to grow a friendship with him, James Agee, and their friend, the art critic Janice Loeb.

In 1959 and 1960, Levitt received two subsequent Guggenheim Fellowships and started to work in color.

40 of her color street photos were shown as a slide show at the New York Museum of Modern Art in 1974 — one of the first times photographs were formally displayed this way in a museum. Her work was also part of the famous “Family of Man” exhibition.

Helen Levitt / New York, c.1938 (poster girl)
Helen Levitt / New York, c.1938
(poster girl)

The main books she published during her life include: “A Way of Seeing” (1965), “In the Street: Chalk Drawings and Messages, New York City, 1938-1948” (1987), Crosstown (2001), Here and There (2004), Slide Show (2005), and Helen Levitt (2008).

Below I will share some lessons Helen Levitt has taught me about street photography and life:

1. Let setbacks empower you

Helen Levitt / New York, 1980 (3 roosters)
Helen Levitt / New York, 1980
(3 roosters)

Helen Levitt was one of the early pioneers of color street photography, starting in 1959 when she received a Guggenheim grant to shoot the streets of New York City. Her grant was also renewed in 1960, and she recorded hundreds of color street photographs during those 2 intense years.

Unfortunately, a burglar broke into her apartment in 1970 and stole almost all of her color slide film and prints.

Whereas some photographers would’ve given up entirely– Levitt was unfazed and went out back to the streets in the 70’s to start all over again. Her best color work as we know it today are from this period (as well as a few from 1959-60 which survived).

40 of her color street photographs ended up showing up as a slide show at the New York MOMA in 1974, which was one of the first exhibitions of “serious” color photography in the world.

Takeaway point:

We have all encountered setbacks and frustrations in our photography. We might have had a hard drive crash, lost a job, family problems– anything that might frustrate or distract us from our photography.

However rather than letting those negative experiences discourage you– turn those lemons into lemonade.

For example, if your hard drive crashes– firstly try to recover the images. If it is hopeless, tell yourself, “All those photos I took were rubbish anyways– let me go out and start taking better photographs.”

Helen Levitt / NYC (Phone Booth) 1988
Helen Levitt / NYC (Phone Booth) 1988

If you lose your job, of course it sucks. But see the opportunity in the chance to pursue your photography more seriously. If it wasn’t for me losing my job in 2011, I would’ve never been able to blog and teach street photography workshops full-time. My good friend Rinzi Ruiz also lost his job, but used that opportunity to pursue his photography full-time and really started to hone his style and voice. My other friend Dana Barsuhn lost his job, and used it as an opportunity to focus on his photography and now is also working as an archivist (in photography) at the Huntington library. My other friend Charlie Kirk lost his job as a lawyer, and has used the opportunity to travel to Istanbul and pursue a long-term photography project there. I could count tons of other photographers who have lost jobs and used it as an impetus to start off their career in photography.

If you are having personal or family problems– use your emotions and channel them through your photography. Photographers like Josef Koudelka and Jacob Aue Sobol have channeled negative life experiences to produce phenomenal photography.

So know that in every negative in life, there is a positive– an upside. See every negative experience in life be an opportunity to create more beautiful art.

2. Follow your eyes

Helen Levitt / New York, c.1940
Helen Levitt / New York, c.1940

“I never had a ‘project.’ I would go out and shoot, follow my eyes—what they noticed, I tried to capture with my camera, for others to see.” – Helen Levitt

I am a big fan of projects in street photography. However realize that there are many ways to do projects in street photography. Firstly, you can go out with a project in mind (and focus on that). Secondly, you can take the “stream of consciousness” approach– and photograph what interests you and edit it into a project afterwards. Photographers such as Elliott Erwitt, Anders Petersen, Daido Moriyama, and Helen Levitt all embraced this approach.

Takeaway point:

When you’re out on the streets, follow your eyes. Photograph what interests you. Don’t feel forced to photograph what doesn’t interest you. Use your camera as an extension of your eye– and follow your guts. If you find a scene, a subject, or an object that interests you in the streets– don’t think too much, just photograph it.

Helen Levitt has done exhibitions that have been focused on certain subject matter– such as chalk-drawings, children, and just color.

So when you out shooting, focus on what interests you–disregard what others think. Follow your own unique vision and path, and make photographs that bring you satisfaction.

3. Don’t worry about the theory

Helen Levitt / New York, c.1940 (kids dancing)
Helen Levitt / New York, c.1940 (kids dancing)

“It would be mistaken to suppose that any of the best photography is come at by intellection; 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.” – Helen Levitt

Knowing some theory in photography is good– but don’t let it take over. I know some photographers who know tons of photographic theory, knowledge of history, and technical details– but don’t actually go out and make photographs.

I am a big believer that we only truly learn from action. So the best education is street photography is to go out there and shoot. And based on your experiences, you can create some theories on street photography (rather than using theories about photography, and going out and shooting).

Helen Levitt /  NYC (Cops and Robbers) 1938 NYC (Cops and Robbers) 1938
Helen Levitt / NYC (Cops and Robbers) 1938

Curators, art historians, and editors are all important figures in photography– but think hard about what side of photography interests you the most. If you are more interested in the photographic theory of things– go for it. If you are more interested in the shooting side of things and don’t care about theory– pursue that too.

Takeaway point:

The best way to get better in swimming is to not read books on swimming– but to actually go out and swim.

Photography is the same way. Whenever you click the shutter, you are training your eyes like a muscle. Not only that, but you learn how to better interact with people, know when to click the shutter, and also how to frame your scenes.

Whenever I make excuses for not feeling inspired, or that I don’t have the ‘ideal’ gear for street photography– I shut up that voice by just going out on a walk with my camera. Once I start shooting, I get in the zone and disregard everything else. This is the best way I have found true happiness in street photography.

4. Find the comedy in life

Helen Levitt / New York, c.1940 (kids over doorway)
Helen Levitt / New York, c.1940 (kids over doorway)

“A lot of my early pictures are, I think, quite funny. And these days I tend to look for comedy more and more.” – Helen Levitt

There is a lot of darkness and sadness in everyday life. But there is also tons of happiness and joy.

What I love about Helen Levitt’s photographs are that they celebrate the happiness and joy of everyday life. She doesn’t focus on misery and the negatives of the human condition. Rather, she looks for the comedy, fun, and excitement of everyday life– often through children.

Takeaway point:

Some of the best street photographs are the ones that make you laugh. I think comedy is a great way of communicating and connecting with other human beings. This is why we love comedians, actors, and other entertainers. Life is tough– having comedy takes the edge off.

So know that all the street photography you capture doesn’t have to be dark, gritty, and grungy. Look for the happy and the uplifting moments as well.

Some of my favorite humorous street photographers include Blake Andrews, Matt Stuart, Elliott Erwitt, and Jack Simon.

5. Go to where people are

Helen Levitt / New York, c.1940 (baby carriage)
Helen Levitt / New York, c.1940 (baby carriage)

Much of Helen Levitt’s early work includes taking photographs of children in the streets of NYC. However the sad thing is that over the years– fewer kids are out on the streets. Levitt shares:

“The neighborhoods are different. They’re not full of children anymore. In the 1930’s 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.”

However she didn’t let this discourage her. Rather, she started to photograph in different areas, such as the garment district. Levitt shares:

“You have to go where something’s going on. In the garment district there are trucks, people running out on the streets and having lunch outside. But no children. They’d be run over by all those trucks.”

Takeaway point:

I don’t think you don’t have to photograph people for it to be “street photography”. However street photographs are often much more interesting when they include people in it.

So if you live in an area where there isn’t much foot traffic– try to get to areas of your town or city where there is a lot of people. Try to go to the downtown areas, to flea markets, farmer’s markets, festivals, parades, or even to the mall. Figure out where people congregate and go there.

But if you live in a city without any people in the streets– don’t fret. Lee Friedlander and William Eggleston have taken some incredible street photographs without any people in them at all. Use them as a source of inspiration as well.

6. Create social meaning

Helen Levitt / NYC (Kids in Window) 1959
Helen Levitt / NYC (Kids in Window) 1959

“I decided I should take pictures of working class people and contribute to the movements. Whatever movements there were Socialism, Communism, whatever was happening. And then I saw pictures of Cartier Bresson, and realized that photography could be an art and that made me ambitious.” – Helen Levitt

It is good to make funny and interesting street photographs. It is even better to make street photographs with a greater and deeper social purpose and meaning.

Sometimes street photography is criticized for it being too “snapshotty” and being a bit too random or pointless. I agree with some of the critiques people have on street photography.

I feel the most meaningful street photographs are the ones that serve some social purpose, and have a meaning.

Takeaway point:

When you’re out shooting on the streets ask yourself, “Why am I shooting street photography?” It is good fun to make funny and interesting photographs of weird things, people, or events. But also try to think about the social purpose your images serve. How will your street photographs influence and affect people 10, 20, 50, or even 100+ years from now? Realize that your street photographs are important social documents as well– and they will survive if they have some deeper social impact.

7. Only show photographs worth showing

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Helen Levitt

One reporter who was interviewing Helen Levitt shared the following story:

When I was in her apartment, I saw boxes of prints stacked up. One was labeled simply “nothing good.” Another one was marked “here and there.”

“That’s the beginning of another book,” she said about the box.

“Can I take a peek?” I asked.

“Nope,” she said. “‘Cause I’m unsure about it. If I was sure that they were worth anything, I’d show it to you. But I can’t.”

Well, she must have decided they were worth something. That book, “Here and There”, came out a few years later.

When it comes to the editing process (choosing your best images to publish) ask yourself, “Is this photograph worth showing?”

Based on my studies on great street photographers, most admit to only taking around 1 good photograph a month. Martin Parr, one of the most prolific photographers, admits to only making 1 good photograph a year.

Takeaway point:

There are bazillions of photographs being uploaded to the internet daily. There are so many uninteresting photographs out there just clogging the internet. Because it is so easy to shoot and upload a photograph, a lot of bad photos are being shared.

Ask yourself, “Am I just adding to that glut of bad images on the internet? Or am I making beautiful art that will affect, influence, and inspire somebody?”

Editing your street photographs and choosing which photos are worth showing is extremely difficult. Below are some articles which can help you better edit your work:

Below is also a video from my free online street photography course on how to edit your work:

Conclusion

Helen Levitt / New York City, 1971
Helen Levitt / New York City, 1971

Helen Levitt is one of history’s best street photographers who unfortunately didn’t gain the fame and recognition during her lifetime she deserved. However she was a mostly private woman– who followed her passion (which was shooting in the streets). Very much like Vivian Maier— she shot for herself and aimed to please herself (before pleasing others).

So when it comes to your street photography, find the comedy of life– but also make photographs that serve a larger purpose. Think if your photograph is worth showing, and pursue it with determined focus, love, and passion. Let everything else go.

Further reading on Helen Levitt

Below are some articles I recommend reading on Helen Levitt to learn more about her:

More photographs by Helen Levitt

Helen Levitt / New York, 1972
Helen Levitt / New York, 1972
  • To see more street photographs by Helen Levitt, check them out here.
  • You can also see more of Helen Levitt’s color photographs here.

Books by Helen Levitt

Below are some books on Helen Levitt I highly recommend:

1. Helen Levitt

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A great overview of her work with beautiful binding and printing. If you are to only own one book on her, this is the book to get.

2. Slide Show

slide show helen levitt

A beautiful book of Helen Levitt’s color street photographs. If you love color, don’t miss out!

3. A Way of Seeing

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This book is definitely worth just the superb and in-depth analysis by James Agee on Helen Levitt and her work.

4. Here and There

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For this book, Helen Levitt hand-picked more than 100 of her photographs in this book. Most of them (over 90) have never been published. A must-have for Levitt fans!

You might also like these street photographers

If you like the work of Helen Levitt, I also recommend checking out the work of the following photographers:

Join the Conversation

60 Comments

  1. Eric, I thoroughly enjoyed your post on Helen Levitt; her work is not just beautiful, but, it gives us a lot to ponder. I agree with your take away points and think we can add expound a bit, especially with regard to not being overwhelmed by theory. I often worry about what makes “good composition” and about elements which seem to be askew in my own photos. We can get caught up in “the rules” that we have all know about cropping, “street photography must contain people” and so on ad nauseum. During much of her lifetime, and certainly when she did her 1959- 1960 work, color photos were situated strictly within the realm of snap shots and advertising, certainly nothing to be taken seriously. At the time they were shot, her photos were certainly not the norm for “real photographers.” Her 1988 NYC phone booth shot is quite beautiful, even if the top of the phone booth is abruptly cut off and there is a pole sticking out of the top of the lady in the right background of the frame. From this, I think it is important to remember that it the photographer’s vision of the world and how we experience and fit into the world around which are prime.

  2. This was a good post. It’s always inspirational to read how setbacks like losing one’s job can be repurposed into creativity.

  3. Thanks for posting this. I am not very familiar with Levitt’s work, but I really like the sense of humour that seem to pervade many of these photographs.

    I think that it is very difficult to take away lessons from work such as this. They are images from a particular time, place, culture, technology and of course photographer. I suspect that the visibility that these photographs have are as much a product of her background as the images themselves, as the volume of photographic work was immense even in this period – it was just much less accessible. Context is everything.

    The one consistent takeaway from just about every significant photographer seems to be “shoot lots – edit immensely”. Unfortunately with online image display, if you upload only a handful of images a year, then no matter how good those images it is unlikely that anyone will see them from the torrent of images from billions of other people. Perhaps because of this the traditional channels of print publishing and exhibition remain the best option to reach an audience while keeping the best quality.

  4. Thanks for this! and thanks for covering women photographers. I read your stuff everyday (and am loving your latest photos).

  5. dear eric…thanks for posting the wonderful photos of my cousin helen…i spent the last 13 yrs. of her life in close contact with her and lived around the corner….as you may notice from her hardhat photo,there is a family resemblance….he left me number of her prints and many great stories and insights….best,ellen

  6. As always, another great article Eric. You touched on many important topics.

    Yes, loss has hit many of us. I lost 2+ decades of work in a flood. Just got to pick up the pieces and pressing the button if freezing time is truly in our blood. My loss inspired me to work to preserve my work from then on. Without that loss I may never have worked with museums and public institutions.

    “The more I do…the more I do.” ~ Garry Winogrand

    Tech Geeks?

    I see a lot of the ‘camera fondlers’ that know all the tech stuff, but can’t shoot anything worthwhile. Well, I guess we need them to keep the camera companies in biz. They constantly upgrade to more and more MP thinking that will fix em. The tech geeks problem is that they spend minimal time shooting and maximum time fondling and dreaming about what to buy next.

    As the Germans said…’We grasp by grasping.’ Serious photogs should even have a camera in their hands while relaxing at night, shooting the TV screen, to keep up their skills.

    “A technically perfect photograph can be the world’s most boring picture.” ~ Andreas Feininger

    “A lot of photographers think that if they buy a better camera they’ll be able to take better photographs. A better camera won’t do a thing for you if you don’t have anything in your head or in your heart.” ~ Arnold Newman

    “One doesn’t stop seeing. One doesn’t stop framing. It doesn’t turn off and turn on. It’s on all the time.” ~ Annie Leibovitz

    Projects?

    They are of the utmost importance to a photographer. They give then direction and a purpose to focus their skills on.

    We can look are some of the wonderful projects that a few fortunate photographers have been lucky to turn their attention to…

    Narco Cultura – Shaul Schwarz
    Street Cops – Jill Freedman
    Wrongly Bodied – Clarissa Sligh
    Les amies de Place Blanche – Christer Strömholm
    Spain’s Religious Rituals – Cristina Garcia Rodero
    Monsoons – Steve McCurry
    Uncommon Places – Stephen Shore
    Little People and Deerslayers – Les Krims
    Too Much Time: Women in Prison – Jane Evelyn Atwood
    Rangerettes and Weeping Mary – O. Rufus Lovett
    Smokers and Sleepers Photographs – Jerome Mallmann
    The Enclave – Richard Mosse
    …and don’t let me forget Shelby lee Adams and his Appalachian project.

    Yes, your point on being choosy with what you show is well taken. I touched upon the importance of trashing our bad work. ‘SS’ got particularly bent out of shape by my remarks. But this one area holds much importance as to how a photog is perceived and remembered.

    I see it all the time on Flickr. A photog has 10 different views of the same subject. One shot may be fair or OK and the rest go downhill from there. It gives the impression the photog does not know what they are doing. That they can’t tell the good from bad. Subscribing to this ‘photo pollution just dilutes and degrades their portfolio.

    In 45 years I have only used the same subject twice in my portfolio. And in these cases, the subject was shot on different days and the subject in the photos look totally different and are unrecognizable as the same person. The only reason I used both in the portfolio was that both were museum quality photos. But my normal MO. is to use only one great photo of each subject in my portfolio.

    Keep writing Eric, I always enjoy hearing your thoughts.

    Daniel D. Teoli, Jr.

  7. I think she used a right-angle viewfinder for a lot of her street shots didn’t she?

  8. I would like just to pick up on one point which is “don’t worry about he theory ” . If one is doing photography only for fun and personal use than yes one should not realy worry about theory. However if one uploads photographs in order to goet critique or imakes blurb books etc than at least basic knowledge on photography history is needed ( I’m talking content and not form here) or at least what sort photographs were taken in the past. Why, becuase people are doing over and over types of photographs that have been done 50 or 80 years ago, unusual angles, shadows, shop window reflections, which were making sense then but not now. It would be the same if somebody would paint in style of impressionst now. I have seen last week great HCB retrospective in Paris. The best part ( at least for me) were the influences and inspirations that formed his work throughout his career. From Atget, Andre Lohte painting classes, Munkacsi African photos to the surrealists. And only now I fully comprehend why did he photograph “choped off” figures, people sleeping, bundled rags etc. They all have meaning in theory of surrealism and my understanding and appreciation of his work is even bigger. I’m not advocating that we must first read theory books and then shoot but awarness of photographic past is very important for anyone with any ambition in photography

  9. It was very inspiring to hear about how other photographers are pursuing their dreams and I am excited to see what they put out, but I’m wondering how they did it? It’s great to be able to have goals and be able to pursue them, even after losing your job, but how exactly were they able to support themselves while they were still relatively unknown? I’m genuinely curious because I am in the same situation. I too have lost my job, and I would love to be able to somehow support myself with my photography.

  10. I have a cousin who studied with Helen Levitt at Pratt in the 1970’s and I’ve always remembered this anecdote that she shared with me. My best recollection of it is that a student was bemoaning missed opportunities when they didn’t happen to have a camera with them. Helen Levitt’s response to this student was that even without a camera we have our eye and our mind and we make the picture. It’s that simple.

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