Helen Levitt is one of my favorite street photographers. As a pioneer in the world of photography, she had a true propensity for capturing the essence of the subject in her work. Wonder, grace, joy, anguish, hope, and love are inscribed on the faces of her subjects, as clearly as if penned on paper. This raw emotion is the inspiration that transforms a photograph from a mere snapshot to a work of art, and this is the lesson that every photographer should take from Levitt.
Much of Levitt’s work centered on life on the streets of New York; her black and white photos from the 30’s and 40’s wonderfully impartial and genuine. While she did not desire to render a social statement with her photography, in hindsight she did just that. Working-class districts, children playing, people completing seemingly mundane tasks – how did photos so professedly simplistic capture the world’s attention? The answer is perhaps a natural and as pure as her subjects: Levitt’s work reveals what every human being sees within themselves. In her hands, a camera was an instrument used not to shape the world, but to portray it. Without special effects, fabricated poses and fictitious smiles, Levitt’s work depicts the human condition in copious forms.
While Levitt’s creations have stirred the imagination and inspired countless photographers, each budding artist must find their own inner virtuoso. Genuine moments simply occur, they are not staged any more than they are expected. These moments do not take on life; they are life. These are the moments that when captured, transfix and infuse the artist’s audience with the very essence of the subject. This is where Levitt excelled, as the majority of her work seems to portray the mere seconds before her subjects realized they were being photographed, the juncture between poses and the details that are so often overlooked by photographers in an attempt to procure perfection. These exquisite moments occur as naturally as breathing – without direction or forethought and may be found in all places. Through her ability to manifest life through photography, Levitt gave the world not only art – but a compelling lesson in absolute and relative truth.
Perhaps the beauty of Levitt’s work is that it teaches without spoken words or instruction, offering each person who is touched by her photography a challenge to seek the extraordinary in the commonplace. She famously said, “Since I’m inarticulate, I express myself with images.” Each photographer does this to some degree, whether mindful or unaware as it occurs. What we are drawn to photograph, what we wish to portray in our art; it is simply an extension of ourselves and the desire to communicate just as Levitt did – by allowing our photography to speak for itself.