Monday, July 28, 2008

The Photographs of Helen Levitt

A friend of the family recently came to visit us for a few days. He brought with him a goodly-sized book of photos, bound in a lovely forest green cloth cover with "HELEN LEVITT" embossed on the front in gold letters.

Helen Levitt is an American documentary photographer, born in 1913. Since 1937, she has been taking photos, generally of city life in New York and often specifically of children and children's street culture. I've included two of her photos in this post. The first was taken between 1937 and 1948, while the second was taken between 1971 and 1991.

Helen Levitt Photo

There is little I don't like about this first photo. The small stalwart figure at the foot of the tree, the masked child clutching the tree trunk like a koala, the plain brick apartment buildings (complete with fire escapes, narrow windows, and dark alleys), even the rubble, litter, and concrete, all combine to create a fascinating photo -- very much of a different time, if not a different world -- with an atmosphere reminiscent of daguerreotype portraits. Most of Helen Levitt's photos are not like that; in most, the people pay no mind to the camera, but go about their daily lives, playing, gossiping, reading newspapers, eating watermelons, selling pretzels, dancing, standing, strolling, sitting, and so on, as in this next photo:

Helen Levitt Photo

What I like best about this photo is the smiling boy, perched up on the window sill, and the way he is interacting with the man in the foreground. The architectural details and the dusty red and green of the building only add to the photo's charm and attractiveness.

Finally, here is a rather hasty and not-very-good sketch, based loosely on one of the children in the first photo:


I was mainly trying to capture the pleasing combination of cloche-like hat, wide overcoat, and slender legs.

Note: All of the above images were edited using Adobe Photoshop. The photos are obviously not mine, and should not be copied or used elsewhere.


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