Helen Levitt Biography

Helen Levitt's photographs bring to life the streets of New York City by documenting the local communities in an honest and playful way. Her award-winning work spans 60 years, capturing children's chalk drawings of the 1930s sidewalks to everyday life in the 1990s. 

Over time, her photographs captured the social and economical changes in New York. Her earlier photographs showed streets filled with people walking and children playing. By the late 1960s to the 1980s, the streets became more aggressive, bustling with activity, cars, and the obsession with capitalism becoming clearer.

Born in Brooklyn in 1913, Helen Levitt later dropped out of high school and pursued work with a commercial portrait photographer in the Bronx. She learned the practical side of developing photographs and was a professional photographer by her late teenage years.

Heavily inspired by the works of French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, Helen Levitt purchased a Leica 35mm camera of her own and captured the essence of ordinary New York life in the mid-1930s.  

Men, women, and children going about their lives, often caught in unusual poses with lively facial expressions. Helen Levitt's photographs reflected the quiet drama found in mundane situations. She portrayed the less serious side of living in poorer neighborhoods, sometimes during times of war and conflict. In documenting real life through candid photography, inspired by the leftwing organization Workers Film and Photo League, she discovered that her photographs were a powerful means to support social change. 

Although most of her work was born out of the New York City streets, she spent several months in New Mexico, documenting children and the lives of the locals through her lens. 

Some of those photographs were featured in the inauguration of the Museum of Modern Art's photography section. Later, a solo exhibition called Photographs of Children, a curated collection, was exhibited in 1943. 

Helen Levitt paved the way for serious color photography. She received the Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Arts in 1959 and 1960 to pursue her color work, shifting from the more common black and white photos of the time. A burglar stole almost all of her color prints and negatives from her apartment in 1970, prompting her to take to the streets again and retake them in the early 70s.

It's those later color photographs that were part of her second solo exhibition at MoMA in 1974. This exhibit was one of the first to show this kind of work in full color, anywhere in the world.

Photographers, artists, and teachers are still influenced and inspired by her work today, with critics citing her as 'the most celebrated, least known photographer of her time'.

Levitt's photography is loved and admired worldwide, with national international exhibits of her work in New York, San Francisco, and Paris. 

She received several awards for her art, including the Spectrum International Photography Prize and the Francis Greenburger award for her exceptional contribution to the arts.

Many books showcase Helen Levitt's work throughout notable periods of her life and career, including In the Street: Chalk Drawings and Messages, New York City, Crosstown, and Slide Show.