All of us go through life with a Kid Cudi mindset; we’re on the pursuit of happiness. Whether our idea of happiness is money, success, or a bunch of groupies, we bust our tushies to get it. For a vast majority of the population, college is the meal ticket. It’s drilled into the heads of youth that if you go to college you’ll be paid and living the lavish life. Wrong. A degree isn’t the only way to the paper. Hell, I have a degree and I’m still waiting on Travis McCoy to deliver my Bentley in his birthday suit. For a select few, their way to fortune was natural. A talent they were blessed with from birth that didn’t require 4+ years in college to perfect. Helen Levitt is one such individual. She didn’t even make it out of high school, but she managed to become one of the best photographers to ever do it. Apparently brains can’t compete with raw talent in some instances.
Lady Levitt grew up in Brooklyn, so you know she had that natural hustler in her. Dropping out of high school, she picked up her camera and taught herself the art of photography. She eventually landed a gig assisting a commercial photographer. In 1937 she began teaching art classes to children in her neighborhood. It was there where Helen became intrigued by the sidewalk artwork of the NYC kids. She then started to use her camera to photograph the street decorations and the children who created them. The photograph collection, titled In The Street: Chalk Drawings and Messages, New York City 1938-1948, became an instant hit. She was even one of the first features in the new photography section of the Museum of Modern Art in 1939. Respect!
In the late 1940s Helen traded in her trusty Leica camera for a video camera. Her transition from still photography to photos in motion started with 2 documentaries with comrades filmmaker Janice Loeb and author James Agee. One of the documentaries, The Quiet One (1948), actually got the trio nominated for an Oscar in 1949 and 1950.
Helen remained active in filmmaking for 25 years. She returned to her first love after she became the recipient of two Guggenheim Foundation grants. The grants were awarded to Helen because of the outstanding photos taken on the streets of the Big Apple. In 1965 she published her first major collection, A Way of Seeing. The bulk of this collection was stolen from Helen’s apartment by some douche in 1970. The photos remaining from the burglary, along with photos taken after, can now be seen in the 2005 book Slideshow: The Color Photographs of Helen Levitt.
Helen’s greatest award came in 1976. She was accepted as a Photography Fellow of the National Endowment for the Arts. The NEA is an independent agent of the United States federal government that offers and supports funding for projects exhibiting artistic excellence. Helen shares the honor with other major players in the arts such as Alice Walker, Georgia O’Keefe, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, BB King, Celia Cruz, Bob Hope, Ossie and Ruby Dee, Aretha Franklin, Maya Angelou, Johnny Cash, Yo-Yo Ma, Smokey Robinson, and Beverly Cleary. Yes, Helen was that respected even though she wasn’t that popular during her time as a photographer.
Despite her accomplishments, Helen remained the same Brooklyn girl all her life. She never moved out of New York City and remained active in photography for almost 70 years. She passed away in 2009 at the age of 95. Unfortunately, Helen didn’t get the fame she deserved during her lifetime, but she did get the respect due her for her grind. The New York Time and USA Today were aware of her greatness and even published the announcement of her death in their pages. Honestly, Helen is one of my favorite Art HERstory features to date. She found something alluring in the streets of New York. She had that natural eye, no training necessary.
Image Layout: Phaymiss
- “You Had To Be There…”: The Photography of Helen Levitt (1913-2009)
- Art HERstory: Louise Dahl-Wolfe
- Art HERstory: Helen Frankenthaler
- Women Making History: Andrea Sonnenberg, Teen Witch
- Art HERstory: Sandy Skoglund